Do Smartphones make students dumb? Parents, how to teach your children to avoid distractions & use the cell phone off button

Tap, tap, text, text, click, click…  Are cell phones taking students from merely distracted to dum, dummer, dummest?

I suppose it depends on what “dumb” is.  If dumb means instant access to vast sources of information that don’t require memory recall to access, that’s hardly stupid. And if dumb means webs of instant connections for help, sharing, and getting things done, that ain’t so dumb, either.

BUT… dumb is as dumb does, so if these marvelous little devices are getting in the way of student productive academic outcomes, then we’ve got a problem.

“But I’m a Multi-Tasker!”

The research on multi-tasking is not good. Most people who engage in “mental juggling,” or simultaneous tasks, display lower performance both cognitively and productively. (See Is Multitasking Bad from NOVA).

If so, the same instant power that smartphone brings in terms of access to information is at the same time dumbing us down by the very ability to do so:

Adrian Ward, a cognitive psychologist and marketing professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has been studying the way smartphones and the internet affect our thoughts and judgments for a decade. In his own work, as well as that of others, he has seen mounting evidence that using a smartphone, or even hearing one ring or vibrate, produces a welter of distractions that makes it harder to concentrate on a difficult problem or job. The division of attention impedes reasoning and performance.

– From How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds: Research suggests that as the brain grows dependent on phone technology, the intellect weakens, Wall Street Journal, Oct 6, 2017

To translate Dr. Ward’s observation into our problem with multi-tasking:
smartphones indeed dumb us down through the distractions and anxiety they cause.

ADD Nation

As any person with Attention Deficit will tell you how distractions destroy focus — or the power of ADD hyper-focus zone when it’s turned on (see Are you an overly-focused person?).

Smart phones can assist, or, rather, enable both of those states of mind.

For the zone, a cell phone or tablet can be an incredibly productive tool. It’s a contained learning space that can draw us into the matter at hand and empower our tasks. Like Mark Twain’s take on a lie, a cell phone  can be,

“an abomination before the Lord and an ever present help in time of trouble.”

Usually though, cell phones get us into more trouble than they help us to escape.

Distraction Procrastination

I frequently hear from students in our A+ Club program that once they set aside their cell phones, their workflow just goes more quickly and they don’t even notice that the phone is either off or gone.

That’s the zone of the hyper-focused, and it can be very powerful for students who are susceptible to distraction, which is a major cause of procrastination.

In terms of procrastination, distractions become excuses for putting off a task and thus serve as a dangerous trigger for deferral and delay. If we are truly dedicated to a task, even an important distraction such as the dog scratching at the door or mom yelling, “Are you doing your homework?” won’t get in the way, because we will immediately return to the zone and get back to uninterrupted work.

But if that task is in any way aversive — “I hate math!” or “I don’t feel like I can do this any more” — even the slightest distraction becomes a ready-made excuse for “finishing it later.”

Advice for Parents: Create a Distraction-Free Workplace for your Child

In defeating procrastination, experts recommend using positive triggers, or tools for “intention implementation,” by which they mean, more plainly, getting to the things we intend to do.

These triggers include “if this, then that” scenarios, such as, “If I want to eat a snack, then I will do it only after 20 minutes of homework.”  Or, “if my cell phone goes off, I will not answer it until I finish the chapter I’m reading.”

“Intention Implementation” strategies can be very powerful because as we engage the “if this, then that” process we are reinforcing our personal goals, including homework, even if those activities are not enjoyable.

But those strategies are hard to engage without additional external triggers such as reminders and stop-and-check points for reflection and short-term goal setting.

I recommend as a powerful tool that parents help students create “work spaces” as distinguished from relax or play places. If a student is engaging in distraction and procrastination, then perhaps the existing work space is not reinforcing the immediate goal of studying. That often means that the cell phone is going off, especially as social media beckons with all its power of seduction and addiction.

If, instead, we develop a work space that inherently does not include the cell phone, then simply by using that space we can develop in the student the habit of not using the phone in the middle of homework and studying.

Regardless of where the student is, turning off the cell phone can become the trigger for and create the space for work. It can be done incrementally, say 10-15 minutes at a time, then 20-30 minutes and longer.

It’s not easy, and it’s easy to resist, but once using the distraction-free workspace becomes a habit, then it is, by definition, something the student does without thinking about it in advance.

Turning  it off is NOT so easy for a Child

You will actually see anxiety in your child by turning off the cell phone.  We parents must treat the emotional response as real, like we did when they were younger to help them get over a bad dream or a scary movie. “It’s not real,” we say.

But with cell phones, it is:

Psychologists say social media creates anxiety among children when they are away from their phones—what they call “fear of missing out,” whether on social plans, conversations or damaging gossip teens worry could be about themselves.

Parents’ Dilemma: When to Give Children Smartphones, Wall Street Journal, Jan 12, 2018 (Do read this article as it goes over the dangers of adolescent social media addiction, bullying, sexual behavior, etc.  For our purposes, I’m assuming that the student has a cell phone.)

The visceral anxiety in having the cell phone off can only be overcome through encouragement, repetition and practice.

Distractions are Procrastination

I similarly guide students in recognizing that procrastination, i.e., putting something off for later, is an emotional response to facing an aversive, or unenjoyable, task, and when we succumb to a distraction we’re actually engaging in procrastination.

We don’t put off what is enjoyable, so the impulse to “do the homework” later is caused by our emotional desire to relieve the anxiety caused by that homework. Saying we’ll do it later relieves that anxiety, and distractions, especially coming from a cell phone, make it easy to put things off.

When I discuss it with students, I ask them to think right now about something they feel they should be doing but don’t feel like. Then I ask them to describe how it makes them feel. They can immediately feel the tension in the very thought of doing something annoying.

(Try it yourself. For me, I just have to think about taking out the trash — I HATE those little bathroom trash cans my wife insists on using w/ the spinny-tops that always fall off when I’m emptying them…)

Once we recognize that doing something unenjoyable makes us uncomfortable, we can at least replace the immediate emotional response with a rational thought: “Okay, I hate taking the trash out, but may as well do it now to get it out of the way and not have to rush in the morning before the collection time.” Or, for students, “I guess starting my math before relaxing later on will at least help me to know how long it will take to finish and if I will need any help on it.”

And we can be explicit in explaining the emotional process of turning off the cell phone: “You will feel anxious because something is happening on Instagram that you won’t be seeing for 20 minutes. That’s okay, because you will be accomplishing something equally important, getting started on your homework.”

Cell Phones are not Going Away

When I started the A+ Club back in 2012, I wanted to price our monthly service at $50 per month because I figured that’s what parents typically spend on a child’s phone, and by engaging a student in a thirty minute, weekly reflection and goal setting conversation by cell phone we would at least for those thirty minutes make that phone a productive tool for a change.

In school, I once had my high school Sociology students put their cell phones into a box at the front of the room during class and to monitor their anxiety levels. It drove them nuts!  They might have forgotten about their phones during an engaging class discussion or activity, but by having the phone physically separated from them made some feel extremely anxious.

I knew some of the kids were texting during class, but I also knew that the hard-punishment would only cause more trouble. My strategy was to be understanding but encouraging of an alternative. Heh, if you really must look at your phone, just do me a favor and ask first so I can know that you’re still engaging the class. That way we’re just being polite with each other. They got it, and we lived in peace with our class and our cell phones.

I hope your child, too, can find the balance. Start with awareness, and through loving, regular encouragement your child will learn to compartmentalize the work from the phone.

It’s called “mindfulness,” or being “mindful” of what’s going on around us — and to us, especially from inside that little metal and glass box.

– Michael