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Is Allowing Your Child to Study While on Facebook Morally Irresponsible?

June 10th, 2010 · 90 comments

Studying while on Facebook

The Stanford Consensus

My technology habits are eccentric. I use an old fashioned, non-Internet connected Samsung flip phone with a postage-stamp size screen. I’m not on Facebook or Twitter, and my RSS reader is an emaciated husk, subsisting on a small number of feeds, mainly the blogs of friends. Long ago, I configured Gmail to automatically mark every message as read when it arrives in my inbox, frustrating my attempts to perform distracting quick scans for new messages during the day.

The rational foundation of my eccentricity is the increasingly alarming research coming out of Stanford’s Communication between Humans and Interactive Media (CHIMe) lab.  Pioneering researchers from this lab are converging on a scary consensus. It’s long been understood that you’re less productive when you’re constantly switching your attention; that is, the claimed benefits of multitasking are false. Researchers  at the CHIMe lab, however, have found that the impact of electronic multitasking goes beyond the momentary sense of distraction, it can also create permanent changes in the brain.

As reported in a recent New York Times article, subjects who were identified as multitaskers did “a significantly worse job” on experimental tasks that required them to filter out irrelevant information — even though they weren’t multitasking during the experiment.

“Other tests at Stanford,” reports the same article, “showed multitaskers tended to search for new information rather than accept a reward for putting older, more valuable information to work.”

Or, as Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford, summarized: “the scary part for [multitaskers] is they can’t shut off their multitasking tendencies when they’re not multitasking.”

This is why I invest so much effort in isolating myself from electronic distraction. In my two fields, theoretical computer science and writing, the ability to focus on hard things for long uninterrupted periods is my most valuable currency.  If I lose this ability, I might also lose my livelihood.

As the computer scientist Donald Knuth once said, “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.”

The Danger to Students

That’s the rational explanation for my behavior. If you want the emotional explanation, however, turn your (perhaps distracted) attention from Stanford’s CHIMe lab to my blog e-mail inbox.

I consult with around one to two dozen students a week — offering advice on how to find sustainable success. Over the three years I’ve played this advisory role, I’ve noticed an alarming trend: The current crop of undergraduates, who went through high school in an era of Facebook and smart phones, is suffering from serious concentration issues. I receive an increasing number of e-mails from students who have an expert level knowledge on how to study, but are simply incapable of giving the task at hand more than a few minutes of concentration before seeking what the Times article aptly described as the “dopamine squirt” that comes from discovering a novel stimulus.

This recent e-mail is typical of those I receive:

I’ve read your red book, I have an autopilot schedule, I have a to-do list, I block off specific times for each task…and yet I procrastinate like crazy…I have a very difficult time following through.

The sad news is that, according to the Stanford consensus, the longer students have spent working in a semi-distracted state, the harder it becomes to rebuild an ability to concentrate on something hard, like a knotty chapter from a philosophy text, or a tricky calculus problem set.

This leads me to the deliberately provocative title I gave this post. When a parent allows a son or daughter to study in a state of distraction, the impact goes well beyond the assignment at hand. This behavior could be rewiring the young students’ brain, making it all but impossible for him or her to perform the feats of increased concentration required later at college and beyond.

Resisting Disconnection

Surprisingly, when I advise parents of the necessity of enforcing focus (my most infamous advice being to remove the cable connecting the modem to the router during homework time), I’m often met with equivocation.

And, I’m not the only one noticing this trend.

The above-mentioned Times article profiled a hyper-connected family in which the young son, Connor, started receiving his first C’s due to an inability to focus on his homework — an outcome that’s not surprising considering that he shares his work desk with two computer monitors, “one with his music collection, one with Facebook and Reddit.” He also adds to the din an iPhone relaying a constant stream of text messages.

Faced with this obvious problem, Connor’s always-connected father, baffling, expressed pride in his son’s distraction. “He’s a fact hound,” the father bragged. The mother, who is perhaps more aware of the problem, nonetheless threw up her hands, claiming that technology is “part of the fabric of who he is.”

I get similar responses to my own pleas with parents. In addition to the traditional apologist tropes about the Internet’s advantagesImproved visual acuity? The ability to do faster Google searches? Really? This justifies a persistent state of unadulterated distraction? — I also hear contrived scenarios in which being online would add some incremental benefit to the school work at hand (the need to look up word definitions is a common explanation).

A Crusade Begins

This is where I’m drawing my line in the sand. The tired debate on the advantages and disadvantages of hyper-connectedness is fine for adults. A 27-year-old, such as myself, can make his own decision about what mental skills are important. But for teenage students, immersed in a developmental stage where impulse control is dangerously weak and the brain is at a peak of malleability, guardians should have some responsibility for helping to preserve their ability to focus. The teenagers can choose to discard this ability later in life, but by allowing a 15-year old to study while bombarded by three screen’s worth of distraction — even if he is a fact hound, and it’s part of his personality, and he might need to quickly look up a word he doesn’t understand — you’re making this choice for him.

I’ll continue, of course, in my role as an informal source of student advice, to preach the benefits of sustaining focus during this fragile period. Are you willing to join me?

(Photo by worak)

90 thoughts on “Is Allowing Your Child to Study While on Facebook Morally Irresponsible?

  1. Cassie says:

    The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning? Grab a yogurt from the fridge and hop online. I always have to have some piece of technology on be it my computer, my iPod, or just television at all times. I remember when I was a little kid and would just go outside or be in a quiet room entertaining myself with my imagination. Hard to believe now.

    In my first year of college, I would deliberately not bring my laptop and go on a deserted floor of the library because I hardly ever got work done when I was connected or give myself a time limit if I absolutely needed the internet.

  2. paurullan says:

    I understand and completely agree with you: people are losing their capacity of staying focused. Just today we were studying compilers when a fellow ask me about an exercise. As I was explaining to him he literally turned his eyes to the laptop, extended his hands and looked at Gmail!

    Beyond how rude this was I have begun to question myself if this fellows have different kind of connections in their minds than me.

  3. Study Hacks says:

    In my first year of college, I would deliberately not bring my laptop and go on a deserted floor of the library because I hardly ever got work done

    This used to be common sense studying. Now, with smart phones, to truly go disconnected while studying is seen as a foolhardy act of extreme courage.

    As I was explaining to him he literally turned his eyes to the laptop, extended his hands and looked at Gmail!

    The dopamine system is not something to mess with! I know professors who literally can’t go more than a few minutes in a meeting with turning their head to make sure nothing new came in on the inbox. On the other hand,

  4. Jay says:

    I think you are absolutely correct. My brother and sister-in-law made their children ask permission to use one computer in the house and are not paying for any texting options on their cell phones.

    Their approach has resulted in a son who is nothing short of an automotive genius (who at 19 is the Luddite in the family), a daughter who has just been accepted into a biomedical engineering camp for teenaged girls (they will be taught and mentored by women in the field) and another daughter who is a straight student with strong musical talents.

    All three will talk passionately at how stupid their friends are who do text, facebook, etc all the time. The youngest one said about a year ago, “I just told her if she wanted to not be so stressed she shouldn’t be on the computer all the time.”

    As an adult, I can testify to the benefits of turning everything off. My wife and I recently returned from two weeks in London and Paris. I did not check my email or evening use the internet for the first nine days. If I wanted news I read an English-language paper. Since being back I’ve stopped checking email after 5:00pm and twice last week I forgot my iphone at home.

    The biggest change has been how much more I’m reading, and I’ve not turned on the tv once.

  5. Vincent says:

    I really like the idea of making incoming Email not be marked as new in your inbox. How do you do that?

  6. Douglas says:

    Hmm, new technology always has its transient periods where people haven’t learned a culture to accommodate new pressures.

    For myself, I embrace the “distraction of technology” and use it to focus, paradoxically, by obsessively collecting the information and synthesizing it, constantly, to get my work done. Constantly writing into a wiki or a text file, I sometimes feel like an information sausage-maker. Now does this make me any better than if I lived without technological distraction? Until parallel universe technology comes along, I really don’t know.

    That being said, yeah, there are long stretches, about half-an-hour each, where I just focus on a problem. But sometimes I find this difficult, and it’s not clear to me whether that is a problem with motivation, or just the ups and downs of concentration (you can’t really focus all the time). This is precisely one of those moments, and I assume time will only tell what the pattern is…

    Have you checked out the NYTimes article on the data-driven life? http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/magazine/02self-measurement-t.html

  7. Sonny says:

    I remember when my gmail addiction started: during application season to see if I got into a particular graduate program. Now I always need the inbox open!
    This post was very insightful, and I think by being conscious of this desire for novel stimuli will help curb this habit. It’ll be hard, but hopefully it will help with my progress through graduate school!

  8. Study Hacks says:

    The youngest one said about a year ago, “I just told her if she wanted to not be so stressed she shouldn’t be on the computer all the time.”

    I’m always surprised by how defensive people get when you bring up this suggestion.

    I really like the idea of making incoming Email not be marked as new in your inbox. How do you do that?

    I just setup a filter in gmail.

    Hmm, new technology always has its transient periods where people haven’t learned a culture to accommodate new pressures.

    Unfortunately, it’s not always transient. Consider, for example, television watching. Fifty years after its inception, we’re still watching way too much in lieu of other, more fulfilling activities. But at least TV didn’t intrude into the office or classroom.

    It’ll be hard, but hopefully it will help with my progress through graduate school!

    This is a major piece of advice I have for graduate students: disconnect. No one expects you to be accessible if you establish early on that you’re not. Set the tone early, because the need to concentrate is at the core of your endeavor.

  9. mr snake says:

    Cal, I know this is slightly off topic, but how do you feel about writing on a laptop (without using my wifi device, of course)?

  10. Audrey says:

    Cal, I love your site and frequently forward articles from it to current grad student colleagues and former students (undergrads and high school kids). I would send this piece to absolutely everyone, but the title is so inflammatory that I find myself reluctant to forward it. Why don’t you keep the analogy in the body of the article but change the title?

  11. Study Hacks says:

    I would send this piece to absolutely everyone, but the title is so inflammatory that I find myself reluctant to forward it. Why don’t you keep the analogy in the body of the article but change the title?

    I didn’t like the title either. Not because it was inflammatory (which I don’t mind), but because it wasn’t an analogy that ended up being all that important in the article. So I changed it!

  12. While you’re absolutely right in principle (about focusing on homework directly), I think your assertion that it is the parents’ responsibility is indefensible.

    By high school, students should be taking responsibility for their own learning. I don’t ask my parents for help on homework and it’s not their job to remind me to check up and make sure I do it. As a junior, I’m almost 18 and am fully capable for managing something as simple as homework.

    Also, cutting the cord is most definitely not the answer. Lots of homework needs an internet connection these days, for doing everything from history research to working on collaborative essays using Google Docs. The Internet is here to stay and trying to simply ignore makes you a bit of a Luddite, which is surprising since you clearly see the value in having a blog. Students should be learning to manage computers effectively, not ignoring them entirely. If they do, they’ll be crippled in a workplace which increasingly requires technical skills to interact in an interconnected global economy.

  13. Anoel says:

    No. Teenagers should make their own decisions about how they want to get their work done and parents aren’t making any of their choices for them. Good luck successfully getting kids to stop it. The best thing to do is show them research like this and let them make up their own minds. In the end, this IS the world we live in and we can decide to take it from either a more focused way or a more multitasking way without needing more ways for parents to try to run their kids lives.

  14. Maureen says:

    I appreciate when you write on this topic. I am connected to all forms of social media and when not on there, I’m using my iPhone or iPod. I force myself every so often to sit in silence and think.
    I am reading Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains ” as he writes about this very topic and I’m concerned about the affects of being on-line too much.
    Your blog is a good benefit of being online as I’ve learned a lot, recently about hard focus.
    I think there will be more studies come out in the future about the effects of the internet (and gaming) as it relates to focus and the ability to focus and complete tasks.

  15. Healigan says:

    I teach Juniors and seniors in high school, and have become recently frustrated (it has increased geometrically over the past three years, IMO) by their inability to concentrate on one topic, task, or idea at a time. They are also unable to make simple decisions without input-use pencil or pen, which group to join, which link to click on the list I provide–it is terrifying. Multitasking is critical to their lives, and I get that, but they must also assess all the input and make decisions throughout the day. Even my high phase students tell me that they cannot work at school because there are too many other “things to do at school.” I ask them to read, write, analyze, synthesize–and most of these tasks require focus for an extended period of time. And the pressure of constant contact with friends through texting has created a soap opera-like atmosphere that is difficult to navigate as a teacher. I work in a tech-friendly style, but we are also a cellphone-free school (LOL) so do I spend all day confiscating cells while having them practice (yes, I mean practice) reading for 15 minutes at a time OR I can…give up? I just wrote about this on my blog, because I am so worried for them and their happiness……I do not believe that the new skills and methods are meant to replace all that came before. While I love that they are building wiki pages on their favorite poets, I do not see that they will do a good job of that without reading Shakespeare’s sonnets as well. Thanks for this post!

  16. Mitangi P says:

    I completely agree with the commenters and the above post. And unsurprisingly enough, as I was reading this post I could notice that I pretty much do the same things! For example, right know I’m taking an Organic Chemistry course through correspondance from by university. Now, we have the textbook and an online textbook that we can access. The right thing for me to do would be to use the hard copy but for some reason, I always use the online text and using that as an excuse, access facebook and my Gmail constantly.

    I think at this point in time, this whole multi-tasking is so deeply embedded in my brain that I literally can’t go five minutes without checking FB and Gmail even though I know nothing much could have changed in those five minutes. It’s also to the point where even if I were to stop, I can’t. And that’s even more frustrating because I know that it’s a problem of mine and reading this article, I get how it’s effecting me but now I just need a clear direction to actually keep myself from accessing the Internet every five minutes. So any help on that will be super helpful 🙂

  17. Audrey says:

    Like the change! I’m already sending this post far and wide. Thanks for another thought-provoking and informative piece.

  18. Aaron says:

    While I 100% agree that exposure to social media, email, etc. is detrimental, I think it isn’t correct to say that it is permanently damaging. The research shows that it likely impairs the development of ‘hard focus’, and has at least short-term effects, but to say that it is permanently damaging is a bold claim, and is not-as-yet backed up by evidence.

    My guess is that an exercise analogy is appropriate here. If the skill isn’t practiced, it won’t develop, and if it isn’t used for a while, it will degrade. Nevertheless, it’s probably much easier to ‘retrain’ you abilities than it is to develop them in the first place.

    I realize this only supports your contention that children are particularly vulnerable (and I agree), but one should still be precise with wording.

  19. Francis says:

    Thanks so much for this post! It’s worse when other students’ habits affect you, and I only finished my freshman year. Even at the quiet section of my college library, so many kids get into groups and talk loudly, or they pull up facebook/youtube every 5 minutes. I wouldn’t mind it if they just stuck to texting. So, I’ve been forced to adventure study to avoid noise, but lucky me there are lots of coffee shops a train ride away.

    This professor wrote something similar: http://www.theamericanscholar.org/solitude-and-leadership/ (This is a little off topic, but in the article he says Yale admission officers are impressed by one’s quantity of extracurriculars. But knowing your philosophy, do you think he’s just outdated?)

  20. Andrew says:

    I wonder if the people commenting with unequivocal “no”s on parental involvement are not that far removed from the grasp of their parents themselves. My parents did grant me considerable autonomy-i.e., whatever works for you, but were adamant from when I began school to complete assignments in a distraction free environment. No TV, computer unless absolutely necessary, etc. I know, maybe it’s sort of like the whole fate vs. free will thing, but once you can get past the denial of your parents actually being right about something, doesn’t seem intrusive to me at all.

    That being said, maybe there is little noticeable effect for some people. If your kid’s grades aren’t slipping, fine. But if you can see it’s negatively affecting their performance, it is your moral responsibility.

  21. I’m a little disturbed by the commenter who thinks half an hour is a long stretch to settle in on a problem. There have been times when I’ve settled in for upwards to a week at a time, eating and taking care of myself on autopilot.

    The Koreans probably have the right idea in teaching how to handle the Internet starting from a very young age.

  22. Estara says:

    It’s no longer surprising to me now when I reflect on the fact that all the “smart” or deep people I know, all the interesting, strong, discerning, concentrated people who actually accomplish worthwhile things are not on social networking sites. NONE.
    Hm….I separate my networking life from the rest of my life, to me, it has it’s own little box, and nothing intrudes, and it doesn’t intrude on anything else….I wonder if that is still harmful.

  23. Li says:

    Hey cal, brilliant article as usual 🙂 I think it varies according to the situation. Certain situation regards multitasking, say you could do 2 mundane tasks at the same time but certain important tasks require hard focus and full concentration. So, it’s all about balance. What are your thoughts?

  24. says:

    How long is a long period of concentration? I ask this because when I have a day with too many hours working, then next day is a complete nonproductive day full of procrastination.

  25. Estara says:

    You know, i like what you said Li. It IS all about balance. If you have too much of a thing, even a good thing, it’s unhealthy and detrimental. Hard focused should be paced, but you should be able to do it easily.

  26. nan says:

    I’m about to give you a case study that bolsters your hypothesis: me. I am 30. I did not have Internet until about my junior year in high school.

    Before the Internet became so popular I had awful concentration skills. I was never really the kind of person who could concentrate deeply on things, and that hurt me long before the Internet came along. I came from the generation that was reared on television from early toddlerhood. Since a very young child I watched television from Sesame Street onward. While television was one of my first teachers, it also eroded my concentration skills. As a result my study skills were always undisciplined and spotty. However, I managed to be an honor student until the end of high school.

    The internet eroded my concentration skills even further. From that first year of being connected onward, I would never really be a good student again. I will never forget this: my SAT scores actually plunged by 100 points in the first summer I had the Internet. The difference? First time I studied from a book – Gruber’s excellent SAT guide. Second time I studied with a CD Rom from Princeton Review.

    I managed to maintain my high school average but by my senior year my grades were slipping. The impact became evident as I entered college. I found immediately that I could not handle it. I got the worst grades I ever had my first year of college and was never really able to recover. My first year of college? Had a compulsive email-checking habit. I couldn’t sit down for five minutes before getting back up again (and this was before I had a laptop!) and checking my email.

    By the grace of God I managed to squeak through college with a 3.0. This is a decent GPA, but I knew I could have done so much better, and I will have to live with that knowledge. It was enough to get me – by the grace of God – into law school. Where I continue to pull mediocre grades even worse than what I had in college, be placed on academic probation, and as in college, boost my grades with courses heavy in fieldwork. At that time I had a message boards and blogging habit which I still have. The damage to my powers of focus had long been done. But I managed to graduate.

    Then came the worst: I struggled with the bar exam, for years. The sole cause: a lack of an ability to focus. I became ambivalent and lazy and even resentful of the exam because I just don’t have the skills to concentrate. I can handle the material, which isn’t really that difficult for me. It’s just the fact that I have so much to memorize and do that keeps getting me. For obvious reasons this has held back my life in a very severe way.

    Half my bar study materials? On the computer.

    Every time I do something to help myself, like create a schedule, disconnect, meditate, go somewhere where I can get work done, this problem follows me around.

    There are so many wonderful resources on the internet. There is so much information I would never have known if not for the net. Being able to blog has allowed me to indulge my love of writing and has enabled me to practice writing short pieces.

    But could I write a book? Could I focus long enough to consider a difficult problem? Have I accomplished what I could have as a student? No. Is it solely the fault of television of the internet? No, I realize that the problem is mine. I am the one who can’t stop it from becoming an all pervading problem.

    Because I have never learned to focus, it seems I am doomed to a mediocre life.

  27. KC says:

    Since you changed the title, you should consider changing the URL as well.

  28. Anestis says:

    You are 27?! I thought you were 40 or something… with the books and everything! I start reading your blog through a friend; she had listed your blog as one of her favorites and never thought you were so young! Ho-o-ow how did you manage to do all that so soon? I’m 23 and so frustrated with college, work, volunteering, have no personal life… anyway I was just amazed be the fact that you are 27!

  29. Douglas says:

    I wonder if a major force in the internet becoming a vehicle of distraction is the combination of free distribution and advertising-based web services. Literally, to exist on the internet, you HAVE to distract the user into paying attention to you. I think this relates to your comment about television: because it’s free, the only monetary incentive for the provider is to distract you into paying attention to their ads. Now the content has to keep you hooked (distracted) through the commercials.

    I mention creating a personal wiki because it’s like an oasis in a world of distraction. Any useful piece of information I find, I put in there away from all the ads and links and other distractions. I highly recommend it to other people.

    I also recommend getting rid of personalized homepages. Also: check your email on your computer only if you have to respond to something. Somehow, checking on my smartphone avoids the *surprise: another half-hour wasted* feeling I sometimes get.

  30. alix says:

    Cal, what is your advice for college students who have HW assigments online – in calculus, physics and chem, we have problem sets on WebAssign and other sites, so the traditional pencil/paper strategy doesn’t work.

  31. Charles says:

    I’m also curious about the answer to alix’s query. I’m an Australian university student and practically all of our assignments bar the finals were online. Two out of four of my courses had pen and paper midsems. The rest was electronic..

  32. This explains the marked increase in diagnosis of ADHD in America. People unlearn how to concentrate and the faulty belief that multitasking is somehow “good” for your brain. Hard, laser-like focus is incredibly important if you want to succeed in college or anything academic for that matter. Neurochemically it makes a lot of sense. We get more satisfaction and more dopamine bursts from a television show or dwelling around on Facebook than we do when we read. Why? Because reading requires constant focus on what is being said, visualization (seeing the sense in what we read) and holding the information acquired in our brain(a prefrontal cortex mechanism) – all that is the basis of understanding, and again the most vital thing is the ability to focus.

    Excellent article, Cal.

    Regards

  33. Mitangi P says:

    @ Alix: I think there are two types of online assignments. There’s the kind where your professor uploads the problem set as a .pdf or .doc file which you then hand in to the professor and the kind which is formatted like a survey in which the answers have to be submitted online–you have no choice but to do these assignments online.

    I think the simple answer (and Cal may or may not agree to this) is to simply print off all the assignments if the professor uploads a .pdf or .doc file with the entire problem set. That was the case for us when it came to math and physics. However, for chemistry, we had legit online assignments in the format of multiple choice–one question per page. If your problem sets are like that…well then I’m at a loss as well. Perhaps block certain websites for a while and don’t unblock till you finish all the online assignments.

  34. alix says:

    @Mitangi: Thanks, but unfortunately none of my Professors upload .pdf or .doc files. We use interactive websites like WebAssign and Aris where the problem set is online, you type in the answer, and the website grades your HW. I personally prefer the traditional pen/paper HW as well because I find I finish those faster.

    I think I need to develop a better tolerance for long boring problem sets :/

  35. Rana says:

    That’s what i used to do 2 years ago ,, I just used to stay completely away from the internet while studying & it really used to work
    But I cant anymore 🙁
    Ok would you please tell me how can you stay without connection ?
    what about coding ,if u needed to search for a library, new words, new technologies ?
    How can i prevent my self from checking my email every 10 minuntes , I find it very hard .
    I really need to stop coz my life became miserable my grades went far down & everything seems wrong!!
    You displayed the problem .. what about the solution ?

  36. I’m sure you got som point in there somewhere, but I stopped reading at “it can also create permanent changes in the brain”. Well, duh, all learning, nay, everything we experience, changes the brain and no, it’s NOT permanent, at least not in the sense a lesion or a metal pipe through the skull is.

    Well, I can’t say it better than Vaughan at Mind Hacks:

    It’s currently popular to solemnly declare that a particular experience must be taken seriously because it ‘rewires the brain’ despite the fact that everything we experience ‘rewires the brain’.

    It’s like a reporter from a crime scene saying there was ‘movement’ during the incident. We have learnt nothing we didn’t already know.

    And with that I say good bye; You are hereby unsubscribed.

  37. Michele says:

    I’ve rewritten my reply so many times that I can confidently say that I represent much of what you are talking about here.

    I do firmly believe something happens to people who are continuously multi-tasking. College and my first job forced me to work in environments with numerous distractions and rarely on one thing at a time. When I started putting multi-tasking on my resume, employers often asked me what it meant as the term was so new.

    Oh, how proud I once was of that line about multi-tasking on my resume – Oh, yes, dear employer, I can get the system back online, talk to Digital tech support, email all the users about what’s happening while still getting you that file that you asked for and yes, I can do it all at the same time.

    Unfortunately, I now find myself 20 years older and multi-tasking is becoming a hindrance to getting things done. I have to keep telling myself, “No, I’m doing this right now.”

    The Internet wasn’t around while I was growing up or even when I was in college. Didn’t watch TV while doing homework either. I simply adapted as my circumstances required, in my world of front-line technical support, multi-tasking was a survival skill.

    I totally disagree that multi-tasking or Facebook has anything to do with the endless search for information. Gone are the days of solely relying on an encyclopedia in the school library to learn something new for a report. Need to learn about the US Civil War? There’s over 123 million search results to choose from. In our overly competitive society students are more likely to be searching for something their classmates won’t include to stand out from the crowd rather than suffer from a lack of focus. Our very human nature drives us to explore and dig deeper and must certainly also play a role in the “let me look just one more place” findings of the study. Instead of having a handful of sources, students can find millions of historical photographs, documents, letters, scholarly essays and use sites like Gutenberg.org to find even more information. Where does one stop if they are fascinated by the topic?

    I can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Single-tasking has become a hard slog for me. However, there will always be something that seems irresistible and distracts us from those things we are supposed to be doing – today it’s the Internet, yesterday it was the TV, tomorrow it will be something else. Do you know these same dire predictions were also made after the invention of the telephone?

    This isn’t about Facebook, the Internet or even multi-tasking. It’s about learning good study habits and how to strive toward a goal. Once again scientists are spinning their wheels looking for a boogeyman or excuse for poor academic performance. Sure the temptations are greater in number and allure but it’s the job of both parents AND educators to teach our children the value of giving something or someone our undivided attention and a focused effort.

    My message to Conner’s parents; pull out the plugs, turn off the gadgets and buy your child a copy of Webster’s dictionary and a thesaurus! For crying out loud, it’s your job people. Saying NO! is part of being a parent. Let him get connected after he finishes his homework.

  38. Anonymous says:

    What happened to the book covers on Amazon?

  39. Seana says:

    Only being 22 I don’t remember much time before I had access to Internet in my house, but I seen a remarkable decline in my concentration abilities pre and post computer. I’ve always been an avid reader and used to spend days reading a good book, but now even if the book is interesting I can’t seem to stay focused for more than 15 minutes at a time. I find it extremely frustrating because I want to absorb the literature but I just can’t keep concentrating.
    Similarly, I have zero patience with television. I still watch it, but I will always be going back and forth between at LEAST two shows during commercials. Same with the Internet: even though my speed is decent, I usually have multiple tabs open at a time to keep me “entertained.”
    This whole thing sickens me, and I wish I could find a way to relax a bit and enjoy one thing at a time without getting bored.

  40. Ben Mural says:

    This article was just what I needed. I have been glued to my computer lately, and after reading this I got up and went outside for an hour-long walk and then did some focused work. Thanks!

  41. This is an absolute given. I tend to be very militant with my time to the point where I am virtually cut off to outsiders. If I am going to study, I am going to study. Phone, Internet, everything and anything that can distract me, is to be removed.

    I think that it is one of the most important

  42. Simon says:

    This piece by Steven Pinker also in the NYT is very relevant.
    Though not nearly as critical of technology as you seem to be he does have this to say.

    Yes, the constant arrival of information packets can be distracting or addictive, especially to people with attention deficit disorder. But distraction is not a new phenomenon. The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life. Turn off e-mail or Twitter when you work, put away your Blackberry at dinner time, ask your spouse to call you to bed at a designated hour.

  43. marie says:

    I agree completely with this as I am definitively suffering due to this problem. I mean, common, I’ll go to the library, leave my laptop and phone at home, and still I find myself going on the public computers for my ‘fix’. It’s pretty bad actually.

  44. A.H.A. says:

    Intriguing! I find myself nodding along to this. While I have grown to love the myriad stimuli and opportunities for mashing up concepts that the Internet provides, I did also build a solid baseline of focusing ability as a kid by spending lots and lots of time reading books and pondering stuff. I probably am positively predisposed toward focus ability too. I can’t really imagine what my life would be like if I had typical focus “hardware” and didn’t have my intense focus training in childhood. I would probably be deeply screwed, as I would not have as much capacity to balance out my, shall we say, less great character traits 😉

    Anyway, I would love to run an article on these types of emerging neuroplasticity issues and how they tie in to society policy. Is a bit of paternalism a good thing in order to avoid brain damage to our kids? Should we have focus camps where twitterholics can detox and be drilled with SuperMemo and Roman Memory Palace? Anyone who’s interested in writing on this: contact me! editor [at] interestingtimesmagazine [dot] com

    Related subject: I read that the amount of fat cells in your body are set in two ways: a) during childhood b) if you get really, REALLY fat in adulthood. So essentially if you are making your child chubby, you are setting he or she up for a lifetime of dieting struggle. More on this: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn13833-fat-children-may-be-tied-to-a-lifetime-of-obesity.html

  45. Owen says:

    Thanks for a great article Cal, it definitely resonates with me, although I don’t necessarily have a computer on all the time and therefore don’t face those sort of distractions I can easily find myself staring out of a window or my mind wandering when I should be studying.

    You’ve written a couple of times before that you took steps to increase your focus; are there any techniques you found useful or was it simply a matter of sitting down and saying ‘I’m going to focus on this for an hour no matter what’?

  46. Study Hacks says:

    I think your assertion that it is the parents’ responsibility is indefensible.

    From the perspective of a teenager, perhaps, this may seem indefensible, but in the broader scope of parenting I think a continued involvement in a child’s life through high school is not that controversial…

    Good luck successfully getting kids to stop it.

    Difficulty of preventing a bad behavior in a child is justification for not preventing it?

    I teach Juniors and seniors in high school, and have become recently frustrated (it has increased geometrically over the past three years, IMO) by their inability to concentrate on one topic, task, or idea at a time.

    This doesn’t surprise me, as I’ve been observing the same issues with new college students.

    but now I just need a clear direction to actually keep myself from accessing the Internet every five minutes. So any help on that will be super helpful

    Here’s a clear plan: work on ochem with the physical textbook in a location that has no computer.

    The ability to focus is practiced — such sessions will start accruing the needed practice.

    Nevertheless, it’s probably much easier to ‘retrain’ you abilities than it is to develop them in the first place.

    That’s probably true. But an interesting concern implicit in this debate is the question of what will happen to a young generation that never builds a “foundation of focus” to return to?

    So, I’ve been forced to adventure study to avoid noise, but lucky me there are lots of coffee shops a train ride away.

    Think of that as a blessing in disguise — adventure studying is an excellent habit to foster.

  47. Study Hacks says:

    It’s no longer surprising to me now when I reflect on the fact that all the “smart” or deep people I know, all the interesting, strong, discerning, concentrated people who actually accomplish worthwhile things are not on social networking sites.

    An interesting observation…

    Certain situation regards multitasking, say you could do 2 mundane tasks at the same time but certain important tasks require hard focus and full concentration. So, it’s all about balance. What are your thoughts?

    The research shows that an ability to truly multitask is a myth. That is, we can’t actually pay good attention to two simultaneous tasks. Even with mundane tasks, it’s almost always faster to batch them up, then knock them off quickly, one at a time.

    How long is a long period of concentration?

    I don’t know that there’s a universal answer to that question. It really depends on what you’re doing and the demands placed on you.

    I do know, however, that according to the research, as well as the anecdotal evidence I’m exposed to, 3 – 4 hours is a strict upper limit on concentration. When writing a dissertation or a book, for example, I couldn’t exceed this mark. So you certainly shouldn’t be expecting 7 hours of hard focus out of an 8 hour work day. More reasonable, in most reasonable jobs, is one or two blocks that fall between 1 – 2 hours.

    Then came the worst: I struggled with the bar exam, for years. The sole cause: a lack of an ability to focus.

    The question of the longterm effects of growing up digital is the big, looming issue surrounding this conversation…

    Because I have never learned to focus, it seems I am doomed to a mediocre life.

    It’s learnable. It help students with the issue all the time. It’s a matter of practice. You start with 20 minute periods of focus. Then you add 10 – 15 minutes every 2 weeks until you can do an hour. Then you add multiple hours of such focus through out the day. And so on.

    You are 27?! I thought you were 40 or something… with the books and everything!

    Beware of the cult of quantity, when it comes to assessing accomplishment. I prefer not to think of it as “the books and everything,” but as, “only books and research.” In other words, I’m warying of young people whose claim to fame is having done lots of things by a young age. I’m more interested in claiming to have kept my attention on a small number of things (computer science and writing), over a long period of time (going on 9 years now).

    In other words, the takeaway message I hope slightly younger people get from my young life is the benefits of focus, not wild and diverse accomplishment.

  48. Study Hacks says:

    Cal, what is your advice for college students who have HW assigments online – in calculus, physics and chem, we have problem sets on WebAssign and other sites, so the traditional pencil/paper strategy doesn’t work.

    Make your rule clear and definitive: the web browswer doesn’t open during the specific blocks of time I’ve set aside for homework.

    This explains the marked increase in diagnosis of ADHD in America.

    Perhaps. Though, I haven’t seen evidence supporting this hypothesis (you’d expect to see, for example, a tight correspondence to the rise of diagnosis with accessibility to computers), and there are competing explanations, most compelling the increase in diagnostic sensitivity.

    Ok would you please tell me how can you stay without connection

    See my above response on training hard focus. Start small — 20 minutes a time in a computer-free zone — and increase, every two weeks, until knocking off an hour is easy.

    Well, duh, all learning, nay, everything we experience, changes the brain

    When the researchers says a behavior changes the brain permanently, what they mean is that they observe a persistent and demonstrable change in the way we process data. In the case of the multitasking studies, this is captured by performance on controlled experiments of attention moderation. In other words, in academic cognitive science, to refer to a “permanent change in the brain” is a precise and meaningful assessment.

    Sure the temptations are greater in number and allure but it’s the job of both parents AND educators to teach our children the value of giving something or someone our undivided attention and a focused effort.

    I completely agree.

  49. Study Hacks says:

    What happened to the book covers on Amazon?

    I’ve been meaning to post about this, but Broadway is re-releasing my books with new matching covers. (Worry not, I’ve made them preserve the red and yellow in the red and yellow books, so we can still use that terminology).

    The only rub is that the new covers won’t be available until we sell out the current printing, so if you’re interested in the new slick look, now’s the time to buy a copy for your friends and family!

  50. Study Hacks says:

    You’ve written a couple of times before that you took steps to increase your focus; are there any techniques you found useful or was it simply a matter of sitting down and saying ‘I’m going to focus on this for an hour no matter what’?

    See me above comments on building up hard focus, 10 -15 minutes at a time, in two week intervals.

  51. Mitangi P says:

    I understand your advice and all but my problem is that all the notes are on the computer (I mean I’ve printed off as many as I could but I don’t want to print off another 100 pages when the course is only going to last for another 2 days) and I have HW assignments that require web browsers.

    That’s actually one of my concerns as well. The reason I prefer laptop over books is because a lot of times, professors will give us notes and if you count the amount of notes that I get from each professor (and then total of 6-7 courses a year), it’s way too much paper wastage. I mean for a chapter right now, I have, on average, atleast 100 slides. Multiply that by 11 chapters and even if I print 4 slides on both sides of the paper, that’s still too much paper I’m wasting.

  52. MCG says:

    Cal,

    One way of looking at your message is that you are talking about eliminating strong bad habits by building healthy good habits in their place. The wonderful language-learning blog “All Japanese All the Time” says, “A habit, good or bad, will wipe the floor with any plan. A habit, good or bad, will trump any resolution.”

  53. MCG says:

    Here’s the URL for that post on AJATT that talks about the strength of habits: http://www.alljapaneseallthetime.com/blog/atomic-energy

  54. Aakash says:

    Who is only 27-years-old?

    Cal Newport? Wow.

  55. sanjay says:

    Cal its not facebook thats the problem. its the tiny little red notification box that is. people feel giddy every time it lights up with a number. similar to the effect of playing a flash game that rewards you with achievements. except these achievements make you feel popular

  56. Eddie says:

    I still remember how getting broadband internet for the first time, when I was in high school in 2004, was a life changing event for me (and not really in a good way). I discovered TV shows that I couldn’t watch before because I didn’t have cable, torrents, myspace, and online gaming since my pings were finally low enough to play. I could also open more web pages at once, since I also discovered Firefox and tabs at this time. With all of these eminent online distractions, my grades and sleep slipped for the first time in my life until I was midway through college.

    With enough discipline I could have negated these choices and focused on the important things – e.g. my schoolwork. And I wouldn’t want to give up broadband now for anything. But I still remember the single-taskingness of using IE 6 (no tabs!) with dialup – and having to wait all the time. Ironically, that might be the best computing model for young students and actually getting things done.

  57. URAHARA says:

    In the internet since 1993. Starting with 2KB per second at that time and moving to 2.5 MB per second today. Scary. I am getting so much of what I do not actually need.

    And once again got distracted by your great article 😉 from my task of figuring out what my life purpose & goal are/should be.

  58. Kay 2 says:

    I am not a student, I don’t own a cell phone, and I’m not an e-mail junkie, but as an office worker, I have internet access because several of our work-related programs are online. The job has a liberal policy and allows us to surf on breaks and lunch etc. It’s addictive. My breaks are geting longer and longer. I know I am wasting time online, to the point where I want to ask our IT department if they can cut off my access except for the necessary work links. But I don’t think this is possible and would show a lack of discipline on my part. Plus I still want the option to view sites, just in case….

    I imagine that I-net/texting addictions and electronically induced A.D.D. will become a problem for business and employees as well as students and teachers.

  59. Lan says:

    Great post. A few reflective comments:

    1. I also have a simple cellphone, which doesn’t even have a camera, but it has texting capabilities. I hate sending/receiving texts, but people sometimes text me. I called AT&T and requested that the receipt of text messages on my phone be blocked. I think I’ve “trained” my friends to avoid texting me.

    2. Similar to another reader who commented above, as a teacher, I see the detrimental effects of constant technology usage on teenagers. When monitoring study hall sessions, it’s so obvious that students are constantly distracted by irrelevant websites, messenger services, etc. on their laptops. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t allow laptops during study hall (it’s only 45 minutes) to help students build good study habits. At least in my classroom, laptops are not permitted, except for the first few minutes of class when students complete short, impromptu writing assignments. As soon as that task is done, laptops are gone (only one student actually uses a laptop in my class). Yes, it’s the teacher’s responsibility to guide students to good habits. It’s part of teaching the social curriculum as well as academics.

    3. My own exaggerated need to use the internet on a daily basis is most apparent when I’m traveling, whether abroad or domestically. It is then that I might hop online once in a while to check the train schedule and such, but other than that, the internet is not a regular part of my life when I’m traveling. I just need to do that everyday even when I’m not traveling…

  60. Srirang says:

    Hi,

    Extremely useful post. This is something that I have been telling to a lot of people. But I am unable to answer a question that came to my own mind :

    If I were to stay so disconnected with the internet, how would I find out about things not related to my work? For instance it’s because I use twitter and a friend of mine tweeted a link to your blog that I got to know about this blog today. Otherwise how would I know?

    In your own case, how did you find out about the research carried out at Stanford or by NYTimes, etc? Did you search for things like that when you started writing this post? I do not think so.

    So where to draw the line? How to stay focused and yet be aware of at least some things which are not so related to my daily work?

  61. Janet says:

    The ironic (or maybe entirely fitting) thing is that I checked up on this blog and saw this article while getting distracted from my work…

  62. sanjay says:

    cal when are you doing another post mate? its been quite a while bud

  63. Clare says:

    As a psychology student, I have found your site to be invaluable, interesting and entertaining. I enjoyed this post and like sanjay I am hanging out for another one!

  64. JC says:

    What about listening to music while working? Would you say it depends on the genre of music?

  65. Erica says:

    Great post. I grew up without cable, video games, texting, and Facebook, but I had instant messaging, and was constantly switching to the bouncing message notification while I was working on the computer. Lately I’ve noticed that I can’t concentrate on reading something for more than 10 or 15 minutes. I can’t just sit down and catch up on the few shows I watch online–I have to be doing something else or it feels like I’m wasting time. This post and the comments gave me some great tips on improving my concentration.

  66. Study Hacks says:

    If I were to stay so disconnected with the internet, how would I find out about things not related to my work? For instance it’s because I use twitter and a friend of mine tweeted a link to your blog that I got to know about this blog today. Otherwise how would I know?

    I think there’s a difference between completely disconnected and often disconnected. In my own schedule, I probably surf the web once every two days or so, yet these intense bursts of information intake keeps me reasonably up to speed on interesting ideas in the world.

  67. Valentina says:

    This is so true. While I was reading you post I realized that my decreasing performance in my master degree classes began exactly when I got my first laptop.

    I also noticed that when I’m really stressed and I’m trying to study I tend to switch my attention more often to the news or my facebook page. Even turning off my wireless connection doesn’t work. I just turn it on again obsessively.

    From my experience I think I do that mainly for two reasons:
    1. procrastination;
    2. I feel very anxious when I study and I need something “light” to read to stop the anxiety.

    Thank you for you very precious advice.

  68. Nolan says:

    @alix and @Charles

    I too was frustrated with being forced to do homework on WebAssign. It sounds a bit OCD, but one trick that I used to help me focus was to print out the webpage that held the WebAssign homework and then work on it like a normal homework assignment away from the computer. When I finished, I would get on the computer, type in my answers, and then look for my mistakes on the sheet I had printed out. This way I had both the problems and my worked-out solution on the same piece of paper without any distraction from a computer. I’ve found this works for other “computer-necessary” things too, like coding assignments or crafting essays. I get a much better sense of the “big picture” of something when I can draft the problem and some potential solutions out on paper and be far away from the easy distraction of a computer. Props to Cal’s numerous notebook method posts!

  69. Jane says:

    Over the past year I’ve contemplated quitting FB so many times, with the actual result just being multiple deactivations/reactivations. Having finished (and failed at) university I keep asking myself what effect facebook has had. On the one hand, I can’t really refute the evidence that is emerging and there’s no doubt that it is an evil tool for proscrastination. On the other hand, its invaluable for social networking as I contemplate employment options and there’s the nagging reality that many very successful people I know (as in top of the year in my University) actively use it. Maybe it just takes some extra qualities to balance and still succeed; extra qualities I clearly lack.

  70. Valentina says:

    I’m a little bit concerned about the fact that “the longer you have been multitasking the harder it is to relearn to focus”. Does the study say anything about the time it may take to recover the ability to focus on one subject at a time for a long period? This is because I’ve noticed I can really focus on what I’m reading or doing for no more than 5 minutes. After that I have to stand up (it is almost an obsessed act) and it really hard to come back to work. Can you suggest me anything that can help me to refocus?

  71. Hugh says:

    I had the exact same problem in High school where I would keep multiple tabs open while trying to do homework. I would finish a question and check out a website, and repeat until the assignment was done.
    From personal experience, I can say that this is an extremely inefficient use of time. You will get more homework done and get to look at more websites if you finish the homework at one go and then go surfing.

  72. Another Aaron says:

    Unlike some others, all my homework is literally on the computer (often on the internet). No worries though, I don’t get distracted all that often (at least once I’ve started, I have a lot of inertia, both in starting and stopping); and due to my atypical schooling background, I am perfectly capable of long periods of hard focus (I disagree that 4 hours is the barrier, ever since I thought about this concept I’ve had an informal tally going, my longest was an emergency rush on an assignment that lasted at least 10 hours; I had a migraine develop after it was finished; I will however agree that ~4 hours is barrier beyond which it becomes very unpleasant).

    Instead I’m wondering what your thoughts are on having music play in the background while working. On the one hand I know that any very serious work I have must be done without music; and on the other hand I know that more mundane work is made less odious with some music playing in the background.

    For example, my latest AI assignment required writing a program to solve a puzzle; the first 30 to 45 minutes was spent without music and with a piece of paper thinking deeply about how this would be done. The next 4 hours were spent with some music on while I typed out the program I designed.

  73. Rickard says:

    Cal, I discovered your blog the other day and this is far from the first article in which you touch on and evolve some concept that I’d been pondering. Thanks!

    In my teens I wasted a lot of time playing online games, especially games such as World of Warcraft, which are infamous for their addictive properties. I quit completely a few years ago, but the other week I stumbled upon an article that detailed the game mechanics and design elements that get players hooked and coax them into playing even though they don’t actually enjoy it.

    The premise is a contraption known as the “Skinner Box”, an experiment devised by B.F. Skinner in which rats would push buttons and receive rewards at random intervals.

    These sort of random intervals have an extraordinary effect on rats and gamers alike. Because you can “win” at any time, there’s always incentive to keep pushing that button, and there’s always disincentive to quit, because the very next push could be a winner.

    This is clearly reflected in modern game design, especially World of Warcraft. Rare armor and weapons have a fixed drop% from enemies. Your weapons have a critical hit chance that will occasionally but randomly deal massive damage to your foes. Et cetera.

    Obviously I feel glad I don’t play anymore, but as I read that article and understood the mechanics I recognized that very same pattern still present in my life, making up some of my most destructive habits. I think it’s the driving force behind, among other things, addictions to…
    *gmail, facebook, twitter, etc
    *online forums and blogs
    *pornography
    *gambling
    *videogames

    The core principle is that you know that you may be rewarded at any time, so you always gotta keep checking. New friend-requests, new blog posts, new gear for your digital avatar, and so on.

    This comment turned kind of long, but I really wanted to turn peoples attention to what I think is driving this sort of behavior and also especially where we replicate it. For example, I’ve always thought of gamblers as kind of pitiful and ridiculous (perhaps because I am versed in basic probability theory :P), but all the while I was exhibiting that same dysfunctional behavior myself in some other area of my life!

    Anyway, thanks again for the thought provoking article.

    Here’s the url to the article I was talking about: http://www.cracked.com/article_18461_5-creepy-ways-video-games-are-trying-to-get-you-addicted.html

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  76. Mizter says:

    COOL!
    Thanks to reading your blog I actually bought the same phone for the same reason!
    In addition I tell people to use my Google Voice number so I only rarely receive messages and calls on my phone! (About once in 2 or 3 days)
    I also filter Gmail messages so that lots of regular email I don’t want just go to All Mail (or a special folder, skip inbox).
    I notice people with smartphones are very often distracted, glad I didn’t get one!

  77. Dale Satre says:

    I had cable in my house for my first two years, then after that my parents discontinued paying for any electronic media. I was forced to trek to the library every week and read. Having a science-teacher grandpa that lived across the street, and with a love of nature and books, I learned from him and the library. I was renowned in my elementary school for being the “science boy,” since I loved volcanoes, physiology, and science so much.

    At age 17, I do not have any social media accounts. I used to, but, i made the leap to discard them. Staying off FB and twitter avoids a lot of worthless drama, wasted time, and etc. I also do not have a cell phone. Shocker! But the time I have dedicated to learning economics and politics and how the world works is impossible for me to comprehend now, as are the results.

    The digital craze is indeed producing distracted persons who cannot communicate beyond the digital matrix. Their oral and writing communication skills are a tribute to that. I cannot go one class without seeing the classmates around me whip out their smartphones to see what is going on, believing they are “connected.” What a sad prospect, indeed.

  78. danielsafas says:

    While reading its not a good habit to watch laptop. IF we are that much edict to laptop study your material in laptop.

  79. Haley Hoch says:

    I found this article very informative and helpful. In fact, everything was completely spot on! It made me think how much my phone distracts me when it comes to school work. Sometimes I’ll take a break from studying, only to find myself browsing social media or sending snap chats for a longer time I expected, making me put off my assignments for even longer. It’s important to prioritize your time so you don’t fall into the dangers of procrastination.

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