News, Technology

Technology vs Attention: Mortal Foes to the End?

Amie Haven

Amie Haven, Journalist

Whilst some technology is designed to distract, it’s how we use it that matters

Right now, you might be busy working at your desk or perhaps you’re sat on your comfy sofa at home. But chances are you’re surrounded by technology and all the knowledge, entertainment, and social interaction it provides. The media has alerted us to some of the dangers of a distracted society, and you’ve probably noticed some of the issues yourself: burying your head in your phone and bumping into people on the street; getting distracted in meetings thanks to notifications you just can’t ignore; using your laptop in lectures to buy clothes instead of taking notes. 

It happens. We get distracted by some technology because that’s exactly what it’s designed to do. Social media sites, apps, and commercial websites want our attention: looking at ads, reading the news, or buying goods. But how we use technology in the age of digital learning very much depends on us. This is what researchers found when they critically analysed studies of technology’s impact on learning and attention. 

Researchers from the University of Queensland’s Brain Institute in Australia discovered that tech’s impact on learning and attention is highly complex and hard to prove. In an article published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine in 2019, researchers Jason Lodge and William Harrison found that generally evidence was inconclusive.  

They found that interactions with technology in real-world settings differ from lab conditions in complex ways, making thorough analysis challenging. The overview of studies shows that digital learning appears to have both positive and negative effects. However, there are two areas where evidence of negative impact is “robust”: digital multitasking and digital reading.

Digital multitasking appears to be problematic in a learning environment as some tasks are distracting students from the learning process. In some studies, students who use social media and email during lectures perform poorly compared to students using tech solely for note taking purposes. Also, since social media sites, apps, and commercial websites are designed to capture involuntary attention – such as with pop-ups and notifications – it’s then hard for students to filter out these distractions. 

Another area of concern is digital reading. Some evidence suggests that digital reading in a learning environment encourages shallow engagement. We are more likely to scan or skim the material rather than read, ponder, analyse, and reread the text. Others have found that we are less likely to comprehend material when reading digital texts over print texts, leading to what has been dubbed “screen inferiority”.

“The reality is that attention is a complex process that interacts with perception, memory, and conscious experience. It has voluntary and involuntary components and can be influenced by factors such as interest, motivation, and self-regulation.” This is the view of Queensland Brain Institute researchers Jason Lodge and William Harrison from their 2019 paper previously mentioned. They add, “The way we direct our attention will influence how we learn from technologies as much as the technologies can influence how we attend to them.”

It comes down to this: it’s up to us to manage our attention. We can turn off notifications and log out of social media sites. We can pick up a paper book and turn off our phones. Technology is not our master. If we want to learn then we need to be self-aware and take responsibility for our wayward attention. The distractions of technology are like annoying little siblings, so just ignore them.

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