IF you walk into a busy subway car or city street, you’ll notice that most people’s gaze is fixed on their smartphone screen.
While smartphones are handy for quickly finding out about the weather or other useful facts, researchers say they continuously distract us and are harming our ability to concentrate.
In particular, smartphone use is distracting students during lectures and lowering their grades, and awareness of this trend has even prompted some lecturers to declare their lectures device-free.
Le Roux, who leads the research, and Parry, a PhD candidate, focus on the impact of digital media, particularly phones, on students’ ability to concentrate in the classroom.
According to them, today’s students are ‘digital natives’ – people born after 1980 – who have grown up surrounded by digital media and have quickly adapted to this environment to the point that ‘they are constantly media-multitasking, that is, concurrently engaging with, and rapidly switching between, multiple media to stay connected, always updated and always stimulated.’
As such, the researchers say it shouldn’t be surprising that university lecturers are encouraged to develop blended learning strategies that incorporate videos, podcasts, Facebook pages and other digital media into the classroom.
The researchers warn, however, than an important byproduct of these initiative has been to establish media use during lectures as the norm.
‘Studies by ourselves and researchers across the world show that students constantly use their phones when they are in class,’ the researchers say.
‘But here’s the kicker: if you think they are following the lecture slides or engaging in debates about the topic you are mistaken,’ they say.
According to the researchers, this is hardly ever true and when students use their phones during lectures, they do so to send messages to their friends, browse social media and watch YouTube videos, or just browse the internet in general.
The researchers say there are two main reasons for why this behavior is problematic from the cognitive control and learning perspective.
Firstly, when we multitask, our performance on the principal task suffers, and making sense of lecture’s is difficult when one’s attention switches to their phone regularly.
‘A strong body of evidence supports this, showing that media use during lectures is associated with lower academic performance,’ the researchers say.
‘No one can deny that mobile computing devices make our lives easier and more fun in a myriad of ways,’ say Dr Le Roux and Parry.
‘But, in the face of all the connectedness and entertainment they offer, we should be mindful of the costs.’
Given their findings, the researchers encourage educational policy makers and lecturers to consider the implications of their decisions with a deeper awareness of the dynamics between technology use and the cognitive functions which allow us to learn.