Age of Distraction: Why it’s Crucial for Students to Learn to Focus

By Michael Crump | 27 March 2014

These modern times have many of us all wound up. There’s just so much stimuli – computers, tablets, smart phones, the radio, television, internet browsers that support multiple tabs. It’s no wonder that many parents complain that their children, when tasked to do homework online, find it very hard to remain on track.

It’s true that we now live in a digital world and that gadgets and the sheer amount of information readily available to us through them give us really exciting opportunities to expand our education, but these gadgets can also be a major source of distraction. In fact, a growing body of research suggests that if students don’t learn how to utilize self control and discipline in order to tune out these distractions, they’ll have a much harder time succeeding in almost every area of their lives.

A Cause for Alarm

A study conducted by psychologist Terrie E. Moffitt of Duke University focused on the discipline of a core group of 1,037 students born between 1972 and 1973 in New Zealand. Researchers observed these children and gathered reports, evaluating each student’s attention, persistence and impulsiveness, from parents and teachers every two years from the three to 11. The control group was then reassessed again when they were 32.

“The study found that children with lower self-control were more likely as adults to have poor health, be single parents, depend on drugs or alcohol, have difficulties with money and possess a criminal record.” This study is very significant because it shows that there is a direct correlation between developing the ability to focus in early childhood and succeeding in the rest of life. Whereas past studies have pointed to external factors such as IQ, a person’s socioeconomic status, or family background as what determines later achievements, the link between focus and future success is something mostly within our control.

Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, says that “The real message is because attention is under siege more than it has ever been in human history, we have more distractions than ever before, we have to be more focused on cultivating the skills of attention.” Goleman believes that because the pre-frontal cortex area of the brain governs both focus and a person’s ability to feel empathy and control emotions, the two are inextricably linked. “The attentional circuitry needs to have the experience of sustained episodes of concentration – reading the text, understanding and listening to what the teacher is saying – in order to build the mental models that create someone who is well educated.”

The Multitasking Myth

Many people argue that the presence of digital devices allow children to develop better multitasking abilities than ever before but Goleman says that multitasking is actually a myth. According to him, multitasking is just a fancy name for “continuous partial attention” in which the brain switches rapidly from one task to another. This is okay if the tasks are routine, like watching TV while reading, but it could have significant implications on how deeply a student can understand and absorb a new concept. “If you have a big project, what you need to do every day is have a protected time so you can get work done.”

Pushing Focus to the Forefront

 In an article for Mind/Shift, Katrina Schwartz says, “The ability to focus is a secret element to success that often gets ignored.” It makes sense. Your talent, skill, and inert abilities are useless unless you have enough focus and discipline to apply them. It’s naïve to think that digital devices shouldn’t have a place in a child’s life, so the focus should really be on the way these devices are managed and the way children are currently educated. Goleman advocates a “digital Sabbath” everyday, a time when children aren’t being distracted at all. He says another thing that should help would be the addition of attention-building practices to curricula.

According to Goleman, “I don’t think the enemy is digital devices. What we need to do is be sure that the current generation of children has the attention capacities that other generations had natural before the distractions of digital devices. It’s about using the devices smartly but having the capacity to concentrate as you need to, when you want to.”

We want to hear from you… Are you a good multitasker? Did you have to work hard to build up your focus? How does that reflect in various aspects of your life?

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