How Do You Minimise ‘Digital Distractions’ In Your Household?

Is multitasking an indispensable modern skill or a habit that damages attention and learning in young people? By 2021, the average Australian household is expected to own over thirty Internet-connected digital devices [12]. Multitasking with digital distractions, such as browsing social media or texting while watching TV, has become a social norm for parents and young people alike [1]. Research shows that due to their online social lives, teenagers are especially bombarded with digital distractions that demand their attention while completing homework or studying, which can undermine their ability to learn, absorb and recall information [10]. Many parents, concerned about technology’s distracting potential, are keen to equip their teen with time management and concentration skills that will help them succeed in their student life and future career [5]. This article will explore the impacts of media multitasking and illuminate ways that families can help young people learn strategies to focus on, in today’s digital environment [10].

What is media multitasking and how prevalent is it?

Media multitasking is the practice of using multiple devices simultaneously (for example, using a tablet to surf the Internet, check social media and listen to online radio while texting on a smartphone), effectively splitting attention between multiple stimuli without fully committing to a single activity [1]. Research shows that youth are using digital technologies in this way for increasing amounts of time [10]. Many young people — especially teens — routinely combine digital leisure activities such as using social media or listening to music with homework or studying [2]. When asked which activities they typically engage in while completing homework, 76% of Australian teenagers claim they often or sometimes listen to music, 60% admit to using their smartphone to text, and 50% browse social media [2].

What does the research say about digital distractions and multitasking?

As the phenomenon of multitasking becomes pervasive, an increasing number of academic studies have investigated the link between digital distractions and learning [3]. Managing attention requires impulse control, a skill which typically finishes developing in the early 20s for females and late 20s for males [10]. When we complete a task such as answering a text or posting on social media, our brains are stimulated with dopamine, a reward hormone that encourages us to switch between quick-to-complete tasks that provide instant gratification, resulting in procrastination [11]. This is why teenagers are likely to opt for the instant gratification of social media or sending a text while studying [9].

Researchers believe learners can encounter two types of digital distractions while studying: external task-switching and internal task-switching. First, they can be distracted by external sounds, flashes, vibrations and notifications, which can redirect their attention and impede focus [10]. Second, they may experience internal distractions when they think about technology, even if not actively using it [10]. Researchers discovered no neurological difference between external task-switching (responding to a social media notification) and internal task-switching (thinking about a social media notification) [10]. Evidence suggests that if learners continually task-switch, even by simply thinking about a digital distraction, they will face obstacles in effectively completing study or homework [10].

Many young people believe that they are capable of multitasking without negatively impacting their learning ability [2]. However, many studies prove that the continuous partial attention created by digital distractions can hinder successful learning [10] and negatively influence a student’s GPA [3]

Strategies to minimise digital distractions in your household

To help teens develop strong concentration skills, it is important to empower them to minimise digital distractions while learning [10]. This means empowering teenagers to create a learning environment free of digital distractions, encouraging them to become aware of their mental processes, and helping them identify tasks that require uninterrupted attention [10]. Here are five steps you can take to help your teen minimise digital distractions while learning.

#1 Remove digital distractions

 Before the study session starts, encourage your teen to switch their phone to silent, turn on the ‘do not disturb feature’, and shut off their Internet connection to minimise distractions. Preferably, their mobile phone should be kept out of sight in another room [6]. Alternatively, consider working with your teen to download apps that block social media to minimise distractions during study time [6].

#2 Help your teen manage their energy levels

Helping teens understand how their energy patterns fluctuate throughout the day can help them understand the best time to study. If your teen is more awake or productive at night, help them build a study schedule that reflects this preference but does not impinge on sleep [6].

#3 Support mindfulness training

Incorporate mindfulness exercises into your teen’s daily life to strengthen their capacity to focus and ignore distractions [5].  Mindfulness can improve cognitive performance, concentration and impulse control, as well as support general well-being by providing the young person with a coping mechanism for dealing with stress [6, 10].

#4 Create unique spaces for work and relaxation 

Often, teens have trouble settling into an effective learning routine because of a lack of division between studying and relaxation time [6]. To help them create mental boundaries between leisure and study, set up a dedicated physical study space in your home where they can focus exclusively on study without distraction [6].

#5 Encourage time limits

To support optimal mental and physical health, experts recommend breaking study into 25-minute study blocks [6]. Encourage your teen to set time limits to complete homework so that they become comfortable with time management [8]. By creating concrete goals to finish tasks by a certain time, they will feel more compelled to concentrate and ignore digital distractions [8]. You may also encourage them to try the Pomodoro technique, which involves focusing exclusively on one task for 25 minutes before taking a short break, and repeating this pattern until the task is fully completed [6].

Final thoughts

Digital distractions are an everyday part of modern life for Australian families [1]. However, learning to effectively manage these distractions can help a teen cultivate time management and concentration skills that will set them up for future success in their academic and professional life [3]. Parents can help teens build positive learning habits by encouraging them to:

  • Remove digital distractions from their learning space
  • Channel their energy levels effectively
  • Practice mindfulness
  • Create a studying space separate from their relaxation space
  • Set time limits to complete work

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