I teach journalism and mass media at the local community college. Walking to class, half the students I see are bent over their phones. Those who came to class early are on screens, too. It is 9am and many have been on several devices since they woke up and will continue until bedtime.

I gave them an assignment to “fast” from all media technology, including their iPhones, for four hours and write about it. Their responses confirmed my observation that we are subjecting ourselves to a wide scale human social experiment with no control group. What is it doing to our emotional intelligence to live in a world of mediated communication? How can educators teach focus as an antidote to students’ fractured concentration?

Here are a few excerpts from students’ media “fast” journals:

Some students likened the urge to use media as an addiction. Does the loss of control and focus described here meet your definition?

students looking into devices at school“I found myself looking at my phone really contemplating just going on the Internet anyways. It was surprisingly hard for me to suppress the urge. It was like trying to kick a bad habit, and made me want to do it that much more. At the end I started to be okay with it, started to feel good to have a little break. Something I think I will try and do more often.”

“At about twenty minutes into the second hour of doing just about nothing, the anxiety had become somewhat oppressive and my skin started to itch. At a point in my adolescence I experimented and became severely addicted to a number of seemingly harmless drugs, mainly cocaine. That uncertain sense you feel, that you are in an untethered free fall, and that the ground underneath your feet might not be nearly as solid as you had thought, while minor in comparison to the inevitable terror of hard drug withdrawal, was not all that different in nature.”

Technology habit or addiction?

Our ringtones train us to respond to our phones like Pavlov’s dog. What are the implications for educators and students if we are all suffering technology-induced ADD?

Sad Teenager with Tablet“I was too tempted by my phone, iPod, computer, and TV. I almost didn’t know what to do with myself without them. I literally ended up having to leave all of that stuff behind and go out in nature in order to relax and try and forget about it.”

“Without a cellphone, I felt disconnected from the world and had a sense of loneliness. Looking back, I found this feeling I was experiencing to be pretty pathetic. This experience opened my eyes to just how attached I am to different media devices that I use every day.”

“I felt restless and kept finding myself in front of my computer, just staring at my wallpaper. I found myself smoking more than usual. Without music, the silence in my room quickly became oppressive.”

Name it to Tame it:

This student named the feelings accompanying his fast:

iStock megaphone shout at teen 000005586427XSmall4:00pm: The media fast begins!

4:25pm: Wanted to put on music while I cleaned the house, but couldn’t because that’s media. Irritated.

4:32pm: Stevie Nicks song stuck in head, can’t really remember the name, and I can’t look it up. More Irritated.

5:05pm: Roommate came home telling me about the new SnapChat update, I grabbed my phone to check and then remembered I could not check it. Disappointed.

5:30pm: That song is still stuck in my head. Annoyed.

5:45pm: I can hear my phone ringing upstairs, but I know I cannot check who it is. Anxious.

Nature as Therapy

Some students found calm by getting on nature’s time; slow and focused.

Boy standing alone on a hill dark silhouette over evening sky“I walked into my backyard, to look at some of the wildflowers growing in a far corner of the lot. I knew my parents would be home soon and would probably ask for help cooking dinner. I welcomed this, though, because it meant not only the nearing of the end to the fast but also an opportunity for me to talk to them without any distractions.”

“I was able to shut my eyes, and listen to the seagulls, the currents flowing through the waves, the dogs barking as they caught the frisbee. I was able to observe life through the lenses of my own two eyes rather then through a camera lens on my iPhone. I realized in that short period of time that all my recent life events have been wasted “capturing” the moment on my phone.”

“I feel that disconnecting even just for a few hours really allowed me to put my mind into a meditative state that I usually only am able to get into when I’m out shooting or focusing on a video project.”

A lack of focus can affect our ability to think deeply, contemplate and reflect.

This student allowed himself to simply sit and think. The result was a profound shift from feeling extrinsic motivation from his parents and teachers, to something intrinsic and tied to his own interests.

make a move, live, resolve to embrace change because life moves on...“I thought more about what it was that I was fulfilling when I read my textbook and realized all these textbooks and classes are simply requirements placed on me by the government (in order to get a job), my parents (so they know I will get a job and never be placed in a situation possibly harmful to me), and also my teachers and classmates (test results on material and possibly speaking in class). These were things influencing me a lot of the time to read and attempt to obtain knowledge; however, I really didn’t like any of them. In these moments, I slowed down my thoughts and made time something that is infinite. From that moment on I wanted to read, learn, and understand facts or truths for myself and not for those influencing me.”

Contemplative and reflective abilities are central to self -knowledge, self efficacy and self direction, the pillars of Six Seconds emotional intelligence model.

brain-wireThe brain is a giant filter. It evolved to discriminate between the danger posed by a grizzly bear versus a mouse. We are programmed to notice shiny objects in our peripheral vision. When bombarded with random texts, social media posts, photos, and silly cat videos, our brains don’t always know what’s important. We can also get “decision fatigue” from making hundreds of trivial decisions and switching tasks rapidly for hours at a time.

Current research at Stanford and MIT has shown that students who thought they were great multi-taskers were actually really bad at it, and performance went down every time their brains had to switch between tasks. Even more worrisome, the effects lingered after they stopped multi-tasking.  Another study found that students who used Facebook while hearing a lecture scored lower on tests than their fellow students who got to take notes by hand. 

 Yet, our emotional literacy, the ability to read faces and body language, is being diminished by less face-to-face communication.

With mounting digital distractions, teachers have to work a lot harder to help students focus and to develop healthy habits of mind that are central to emotional intelligence. I am leading mindfulness exercises and meditation in class. And, inspired by Six Seconds, I am asking students to name how they are feeling after watching a video or reading a passage of a book. I am also using a lot more small group activities in my classroom in which they learn about each other’s lives. Maybe one class at a time, we can reclaim the calm, focus, and mastery that can happen when students are really engaged.

Resources and readings about Digital Distraction:

Time Magazine Article: Don’t Multitask, Your Brain Will Thank You

TED Radio Hour: Abha Dawesar: Do Screens Distort Our Sense of Time?

Conversing on the Real: Deborah Havert and Heather Constantine

Video Daniel Goleman: Focus, the Hidden Driver of Excellence

Video: Ted Talk by Sherry Turkle, author of “Alone Together “



Rachel Goodman

Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and communications professional, editor, producer, and writer for effective outcomes. Ms. Goodman has been a radio producer for much of her career, specializing in short features and documentaries. Some of her work includes Southern Songbirds: the Women of Early Country Music, Pastures of Plenty: A History of California's Farmworkers, and The Boomtown Chronicles: Reflections on a Changing California. Ms. Goodman teaches journalism at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz County. Her goals are to facilitate positive change in the world through effective communication, and to continue conducting her work with the highest level of integrity possible.

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