Learning in the Age of Digital Distractions

Aug 02, 2017

As an Apple user, my phone, iPad and laptop are all synched, streamlining my life as I work from home. However, there are times when I’m working on a creative essay and I need silence to “hear” my own thoughts – a tough thing when my phone calls ring through my laptop, and I’m bombarded with text messages, Facebook alerts, and email notifications.

It takes an iron will to work without any electronic distractions these days.

But how does this affect learning, or our ability to acquire new information and make inferences?


A book called, “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World”, takes a look at how technology is changing the way we synthesize the information we’re constantly bombarded with. The implications are a little frightening, but nothing we haven’t already witnessed in ourselves and our children. In a nutshell, technology has transformed our hunter-gatherer instincts into a never-ending quest for information, to the point of distraction.

Likened to an addiction, which we’re no strangers to in the digital sense, authors Dr. Adam Gazzaley and Dr. Larry D. Rosen highlight the positive effects of information foraging (goal setting), as well as the negative consequences (information inundation serving as a hindrance or distraction). While technology has made many of us expert multi-taskers, how much are we missing or losing as a result?

A lot, according to Dr. Gazzaley, “When we switch between tasks, we suffer a degradation of performance that then could impact every aspect of our cognition from our emotional regulation to our decision making to our learning process, as well as real-world activities like school and work and safety on the road.”


Our incessant digital multitasking also takes its toll on our relationships, which I experience firsthand. I often have a difficult time balancing my time between work and home life, as I am almost constantly plugged-in, whether it be for breaking news stories (related to my field) or for potential job opportunities (the very real aspect of freelancing). As a result, I find that I’m often on my smartphone or laptop in the evenings, when I should be focusing my attention on time with my husband.

Case in point -- this past Saturday, I received a Facebook message at 9pm, while we were in the middle of family movie night, about a possible collaboration. Once my phone dings, I compulsively grab it to check my messages. This message required a more detailed response, so I ended up having to ask my husband to fill me in on the ten minutes I missed of the movie -- he wasn’t pleased.

When it comes to our children, we’re often distracted by our digital counterparts, which can send confusing messages to our kids, but even their relationship with technology messes with the intricate wiring of their brains,, in terms of their educational and emotional well-being.

Gazzaley explains that our success in memory is directly related to our brain’s subconscious ability to filter out unnecessary information, “If you process information around you that is irrelevant to your goals, it will create interference. It will degrade those representations in your brain and you will not perform at the same level.” In a very real sense, technology and digital information overload have impacted the way we, and our children, are processing information, often causing an inability to remember that information which is important.


Teachers are challenged with grabbing and sustaining students’ attention, a feat made increasingly difficult with our digitally-distracted brains. Says Gazzaley, “our tendency of distraction is higher than ever before because of technology, because of this unprecedented exposure to information all the time and even the very rapid reward cycle that everyone, especially young people experience in their social lives.”

From causing sleep issues to a proclivity for anxiety and depression in teens, research is showing that parents need to intervene in their children’s digital lives (and even alter their own). However, there’s no need to completely remove technology from your home, says Gazzaley:

“There needs to be some positive acceptance that young people are going to use this technology. I don't think that just denying it is reasonable. I also don't think an extended period of removing technology is likely to be helpful. I think that it is reasonable to take technology "time outs," to have environments and maybe even times where the family interacts with each other and not the outside world through texts. It's sort of a return to the dinner table as a place where you learn how to engage in face-to-face, meaningful contact. Put your tech aside. You can return to it afterward.”

Parental control software, such as Net Nanny can offer a safety net to help you with online distractions. By offering a sense of limits, you and your family can begin to ease the fear of online distractions.