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Are mobile phones harming your students' concentration?

Are mobile phones harming your students’ concentration?

5 min read
  • Phones & technology

We live in an age in which technology is becoming more and more prominent. A recent study has suggested that students check their phones on average every 8.6 minutes, and the media has been full of claims that social media and smartphones are killing our attention span for the last decade.

So, is that true? And is the effect of the tech revolution strong enough to have a visible impact on students’ everyday concentration? Let’s look at the latest research to uncover the answer to these questions…

What does the the latest research say?

Over the past few years, there has been a significant increase in research efforts aimed at investigating the effects of mobile phones on student attention. Let’s take a closer look at three of the most noteworthy findings that have emerged from these studies…

1.  Decreased concentration when studying 

When it comes to studying, mobile phones can be a major distraction for students. Apps are engineered to keep users hooked and engaged for long periods of time, making it difficult for students to focus on their academic work once they start using their devices – or even by just having them nearby. This in turn can lead to procrastination and poor time management. 

This idea is supported by a recent study where 111 students were asked to complete an online self-report questionnaire based on their usage of TikTok on their mobile phones. They found that students who spent more time on the app were less likely to get their schoolwork done and more likely to lose track of time. 

It is also worth mentioning that the blue light emitted by mobile phones can cause eye strain and fatigue, which can further reduce a student’s ability to concentrate and study effectively. 

2. Dependence on instant gratification 

When students use their phones, they can receive immediate “rewards” in the form of social media notifications, messages or entertaining videos, which stimulate the release of dopamine in the brain and create a feeling of pleasure and satisfaction.

This reward-seeking behaviour can become habit-forming, making it difficult for students to engage in tasks that require them to sustain their attention and delay gratification. Indeed, various studies have found that frequent phone users do experience shorter attention spans and greater impulsivity.

Students need prolonged attention and patience constantly in their daily life – be it for reading long texts, actively listening in class or doing their homework after school. As such, lacking these can quickly get in the way of their learning and development.

3. Distraction during leisure time

The mere presence of a mobile phone can make students miss out on the full experience of a fun activity. Notifications, messages and social media alerts can easily distract them from the present moment and harm both their engagement and enjoyment.

This phenomenon was recently shown in a study where 304 people were asked to go out to dinner with friends or family. Half of the group were told that they’d receive a study question via text at some point during the meal, so they had to keep their phones on the table. The other half were told they’d answer the question on paper during the meal and had their phones stored away. Both groups then answered questions about their phone use and overall dining experience.

What they found was that participants who had their phones were 7% more distracted during the meal than those who did not have their phones. The more significant finding, however, was that the group with phones rated their dining experience as 5.4% less interesting and enjoyable than those without phones. 

Don’t let your students’ phone get in the way of their learning and well-being – help them develop key phone management skills.

So, how can you help students manage their phone use?

Now that we know the detrimental impact mobile phones can have on students’ concentration, it is important that we ensure they don’t use these devices excessively. But as mobile phones have become a ubiquitous part of all our lives, it is unrealistic for teachers and parents/guardians to simply constantly remind students to put their phones away. They must eventually learn to regulate their phone usage on their own.

We have already written a comprehensive guide on how to achieve this, but here is a summarised key list of the most effective strategies to help your student or child to develop better phone management skills…

Limit notifications

It may be a good idea for students to change their settings so they can carefully choose what they are notified of and when. This way, they can avoid being distracted by social media and gaming updates without risking missing an important call.

They can also let their friends know when they’ll be back online to ensure they aren’t disturbed and to avoid the temptation of texting during a studying session. 

Create a phone-free zone

Declaring their study desk a phone-free zone can help students improve their focus and productivity. Out of sight, out of mind is the key here. Establishing a rule that keeps their phone completely out of their way will increase students’ focus on the task at hand and eliminate any potential digital disruptions. In the meantime, they can leave it to charge in another room or give it to a trusted adult to look after for a pre-determined period of time.

Use apps to help limit screen time

Sometimes, you need to fight fire with fire. For those who need extra motivation to limit their phone usage, apps like Forest can be incredibly useful. This app incentivises users to refrain from touching their phones for a set period of time by allowing a digital plant to grow as a reward for their discipline.

Final thoughts

The latest research has shown the problems mobile phones pose for students’ attention in various aspects of their lives. Beyond hindering their learning, these small devices can also take away from simple joys.

However, by implementing the tips and tricks outlined above, students can improve their concentration and productivity, leading to a healthier development.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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