Welcome to another Media Moment! This month, Devorah Heitner, author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World, and founder of Raising Digital Natives, shares her recommendations for helping children focus and avoid digital distractions. These stories are meant to help create a village square of commiserating and co-celebrating the many ways media intersect with the lives of children. Please comment and even submit your own ‘Moment’ to share with your fellow readers.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
Let’s get off the Moral High Ground: Tech-Distraction is a Human Problem, Not Just a Kid’s Issue
One of the biggest challenges of the digital age is distraction. Not just for our kids, but for us adults, too. Every school I visit, parents express the same worries – they hear that kids are gaming or surfing the web during class, and they notice their children’s inability to concentrate as they attempt to do their homework on tablets and laptops, sometimes with their phones in their hands as well. We’ve all been there. If I hadn’t turned off the wifi every morning until I met my word quota, I’d never have finished my book, Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in Their Digital World.
Some concern is warranted. According to an extensive survey on cyberbalance, almost one third of teens (28%) acknowledge that digital engagement interferes with schoolwork. Even outside the classroom, 44 percent of tweens admit that their digital pursuits take them away from other things they are doing, and 17 percent of tweens say that their digital engagement causes problems in relationships with friends and family. Teens and tweens are in need of mentorship to help them navigate these challenges, especially when it comes to their schoolwork.
Homework and Distraction
Many parents describe this scene to me: Their child goes to his room to work on homework, perhaps on a school-issued Chromebook or iPad. Three hours later, he isn’t finished. Was he perhaps texting or FaceTiming with friends? The conversation may have started out about homework, but then moved on to other topics. Was he listening to music and “had to” make a new playlist? Did he get distracted by a new Muscial.ly video posted by a friend? Or was he just old-school daydreaming?
If you find that your child is struggling with digital distractions while doing homework on a tablet or laptop, work together and figure out a solution. Here are my recommended strategies—find the ones that are best for your family:
- Check with your children’s teachers about how much time they expect students to spend on homework. If it’s taking your kids 2-3 hours to complete their work when the teacher recommends an hour at most, distractions, due to multitasking with media, may be the culprit.
- Unplug: Not all homework requires online time, so offline time (or even turning off your home Wi-Fi) during “home study hall” may be an effective tactic, even if homework is completed on a laptop.
- Don’t do double screening. Make sure your children are only using one screen at a time so that they are able to better focus on a single task. If their work requires them to use a laptop, make sure their phone and tablets are put away and that the screen they are using stays focused on the task at hand. Have them place their devices in “Do Not Disturb” mode. It is hard to do work when alerts and texts keep popping up on the screen, and your kids don’t need to see the latest messages, or be on social media while writing a paper.
- Empathize with the struggle. Be open with your kids about your own experiences of distraction. Share how digital distractions drain your own productivity and let them know the solutions you use to help stay more focused. Knowing this can be helpful to children and make them feel like their own struggles are not unusual or due to “weakness.”
- Use tech to manage tech. Some kids will appreciate and enjoy “distraction blockers” – apps and programs such as LeechBlock and Freedom. While blocking won’t solve all distraction problems, it can help! As I type this, I am blocking social media myself. My friends’ babies are cute and breaking news is exciting, but I need to focus.
- Start unplugged. If your kids need to be online or collaborate with classmates, have them complete all of their non-Internet homework first and do the plugged-in homework last. Impose a time limit to help them budget their time, and be present so that you can help them stay focused. Try my trick of starting a writing project with a handwritten outline on paper or drafting without wifi.
It’s natural for us to seek breaks in our work, however, the mental work of toggling back and forth between distractions puts our best abilities at risk. While the actual interruption may seem to be only a few seconds, it takes us a while to reengage and get back into the flow of our work. This “dislocation” is a problem as we may get fatigued from the effort of repeatedly bringing our minds back to a task. Thus, one hour of homework can take two or three hours and feel exhausting—but the effort is not from the work itself, but from the work of constantly refocusing.
As parents, we need to help our kids avoid “double screening” and understand toll toggling can take on our ability to work and think. As Alex Pang points out in his book, Distraction Addiction, “Digitally enabled switch-tasking tends to push several tasks into a narrow band of attention in a way that seems to short circuit your ability to really focus on what you need to do.” Pang points out that so many of us over estimate the creativity and inspiration we get from switch-tasking and cites research showing that “People who are heavy switch taskers have a harder time than others concentrating for long periods”. Our devices add a lot to our lives, both positive and negative.
Digital citizenship is about learning how to harness the positives and minimize the negatives when it comes to technology. If you can get to the root cause of distraction and teach your children (and yourself) to use media for the task at hand, you will be able to help them fight through tech temptations and get their homework done.
~ Devorah Heitner
(photo credit: Devorah Heitner)