Learning in an age of distractions

Michael Crowder reads during an after-school literacy program
Photo Courtesy: Alex Slitz

In the 21st century technology is everywhere from phones that can be carried in your pockets, virtual assistants that change the temperature at your command, and refrigerators with built-in tablets. 

Technology has become essential in an average person’s life and is something that a majority of us can not live without.

“Technology addiction or mobile addiction will cause a decrease in reading time,” explained the Library of Medicine. “At the same, these addictions will negatively affect individuals’ comprehension skills, language skills, and ability to generate ideas in general.”

Due to the increased reliance on technology, many use technology to do tasks for them. For example, reading a book or even solving a math equation. 

In this instance, technology does anything and everything for its users. When relying on something so heavily as technology, a person will not know how to complete the said task on their own.

Additionally, the COVID-19 virus and the pandemic played a huge role in the increase in the use of technology. 

This is based on their being no access to school and learning resources without the use of computers or phones. Technology allows students and teachers to remain connected in terms of school.

But does this possibly detrimental attachment to technology lead to a detachment in education? 

Knowing how to read and write is an extremely important skill and it has been for generations to come. Technology has been beneficial in some ways but in other ways not so much.

Despite this, technology does provide endless access to the internet. It gives not only students but the teachers as well access to a world of endless knowledge and learning resources. 

But is the access to unlimited technical knowledge at the cost of limited human knowledge?

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, “kids ages 8-18 now spend, on average, a whopping 7.5 hours in front of a screen for entertainment each day.” That’s around 114 days a year, which is just about ⅓ of the year spent on technology alone.

Technology can also be seen as a major distraction to learning. We receive on average 63 notifications a day. The constant incoming notifications affect a person’s ability to focus. This is based on the brain’s ability to focus when faced with other stimuli. When facing distractions, the parietal cortex and the frontal cortex are in a way, competing with each other. The parietal cortex responds to distractions and the frontal cortex is involved in maintaining focus in regards to a task. Distractions arise when the activity of the parietal cortex gets through to the frontal cortex. Once that activity takes over, the distraction has completed its job, to distract. 

“They’re used to being distracted, and they’ve come to anticipate an interruption,” stated Totara, a learning management system. “When it doesn’t come, their mind begins to wander away from the material being taught and back to the other demands of their time. What happens is that the student doesn’t effectively learn and retain the material.”

This same logic can be applied to learning within the classroom if a student receives a notification during class, that notification can be distracting and if the parietal cortex takes over, the student is no longer paying attention to the lesson but instead what is occurring on the phone. This has led to a decrease in attention span; from the once 12-second span in the 2000s to a mere 8 seconds in the 2020s. Thus lower test scores because students can not maintain a proper focus. 

According to the Nation’s Report Card, In 2022 alone, the average reading score at both fourth and eighth grade decreased by 3 points compared to 2019. In fourth grade, the average reading score was lower than all previous assessment years going back to 2005 and was not significantly different in comparison to 1992.

All in all, technology has its benefits and its downfall. But how one interprets and uses technology determined whether it can be used for good or not.