‘Like watching a carnival going on outside’: coping with distraction in the digital age

5619897608_25f3e11e98_zThe near ubiquity of wifi and/or 4G, together with the high level of mobile device usage, means students can be almost constantly online. Many check their email, messaging apps and social networks as soon as they wake up, several times throughout the day, and one last time shortly before going to sleep. One consequence of this is a feeling of pressure to be instantly contactable (by the University as well as by their friends); another is the problem of distraction. In this article we draw from data collected by the DIGE 2 project to explore how students at Oxford deal with the problem of distraction in particular. As with many of the issues we discussed with participants, it’s by no means unique to the digital age, but technology has amplified it. It’s also not unique to Oxford,

The scale of the problem

The seriousness of the situation is illustrated in the data from the DIGE 2 student survey. Of the 193 who responded to an open-ended question asking about the negative impact of digital technologies, 62% specifically referred to distraction; for example:

There is so much online (and offline) that pushes you away from work – and when procrastination is just a click away, the temptation is all the greater. It’s like sitting in a library window watching a carnival go on outside. There’s no separation, no divide, and this is especially true when it comes to websites like Facebook.

iphoneThe internet provides multiple and tempting opportunities for students to procrastinate rather than focus on a particular piece of work, and these temptations are heightened where students have a smartphone. Two students interviewed by the project team mentioned reaching for their phones if they get bored, despite being aware that time which may seem to be unproductive can in fact provide an opportunity for reflective learning.

A graduate student pinpointed what she perceived to be the driving force behind the temptations:

The main detriment is the fact you’re always thinking, ‘Well I could just check it for a couple of seconds and find out about what my friends are up to, events’ – the whole fear of missing out thing – and then it NEVER is [just a couple of seconds].

Two other survey questions probed the issue further, seeking to elicit students’ approach to tasks involving course-related reading or researching and preparing a piece of written work. The data suggested that only a minority (roughly 10% of respondents) close down their email inbox and social networks in order to concentrate fully on the task at hand. Approximately 60% of reported that they check their email and social networks every 30 minutes or so, and an average of 16% do so every few minutes.

The problem isn’t limited to students: at least one of the teaching staff whom we interviewed intimated that academics may find themselves similarly prone to distraction.

Students’ strategies for managing their connectivity

This state of affairs prompts the question ‘what strategies do students adopt to cope with distraction?’ Finding an appropriate strategy is not easy, as some distractions may be more acceptable than others:

At the moment my email on my MacBook will tell me every time I get an email … I was thinking about whether I should turn that off so that I can choose when to start doing my emails. … I kind of feel that is an OK distraction because it serves a purpose, whereas Facebook tends to not serve a purpose (undergraduate).

Even so, an analysis of data from across the student survey and interviews revealed a number of techniques:

  • reading non-digital resources, including printing online documents;
  • using productivity apps and browser extensions such as StayFocusd, SelfControl and Cold Turkey to block websites that might distract them;
  • setting their devices to receive ‘push’ notifications of emails, and reading the whole message only if it appears important;
  • choosing a place to work where the risk of distraction by both digital devices and other people is minimised. This can vary from a library to departmental postgraduate study room or research group office and, even, to one’s room, as illustrated by these differing survey responses:

The atmosphere of a library is better for study than my own room, where there are too many distractions (undergraduate).

Access to others researching similar areas, access to department PC (software licences), access to a large screen PC, peace and quiet (research student, giving reasons for working in a postgraduate study room).

I like being alone when I’m working, or I get distracted talking to people (undergraduate, explaining why they prefer to work in their room).

  • using separate devices for study and social activities;
  • withdrawing from participation in social media: eg by closing (or at least ceasing to use) one’s Facebook account or getting rid of one’s smartphone;
  • cultivating self-discipline:

…the idea of downloading something that does something that I could do myself if I was just self-disciplined, seems a bit strange. Lots of my friends use the blockers and stuff, but me personally I would rather be, like, I don’t need technology to stop me from using technology. I should be able to do that as an individual (undergraduate).

How can the University help?

girl-925284_1920 Pub domain PixabayIt would appear that the University can be simultaneously part of the problem and part of the solution. Some students consider it to be one of the sources of pressure on them to be constantly online. For example, one undergraduate participant in the project felt that, because of the assumption that students can respond on the move, more emails are sent out that assume a quick response: for example, last-minute rescheduling of tutorials and room changes are announced through email. Furthermore, some of the books and articles that students need to access may only be available online – a trend that is likely only to increase.

As noted, the problem of distraction pre-dates the digital age. It may also be associated with underlying issues, such as perfectionism or the imaging of criticism and judgements which can get in the way of essay writing. The University’s Counselling Service provides a series of short podcasts to help students with study-related problems; tackling the underlying cause could, in turn, reduce the temptation to procrastinate by checking one’s social media alerts. However, as yet (1st March 2016) there is no support on the specific topic of distraction. Indeed, this is one of the recommendations of the DIGE 2 project, which also suggests that advice and guidance should be co-designed with students who have adopted successful strategies.

Readers with an Oxford single sign-on can download a copy of the DIGE 2 research report from WebLearn.

Image credits:
  Top: CC BY Johan Larson via Flickr
  Middle: CC BY Robert S Donovan via Flickr
  Bottom: Public domain via Pixabay

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One Response to “‘Like watching a carnival going on outside’: coping with distraction in the digital age”

  1. […] unconnected lives resonate with data collected by the DIGE 2 project. Indeed, we’ll report on how students at Oxford tackle (or fail to tackle) the problem of distraction associated with digital devices and the internet in the Week 7 issue of this […]

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