11/09/2012 11:47 am ET Updated Jan 09, 2013

Helping Your Children Study Amidst Distracting Technologies

Recently, my research team observed nearly 300 middle school, high school and university students studying in their homes. To keep it simple, we asked them to study "something important" for only 15 minutes and told them that we would be sitting behind them and observing. This situation should have put them into serious study mode, not wanting to look bad by not studying. Every minute, we noted whether they were, indeed, "on task" and studying, what distracting technologies were in their study environment, if they were texting or listening to music or watching television or looking at websites. We also asked about their use of study strategies and their preference for working on a single task or switching back and forth from task to task. Our goal was to see if students could concentrate for the short 15-minute study period or if they couldn't focus and attempt to identify the main distracting culprits.

The results were startling and sobering:

• Students of all ages were able to focus and stay on task for an average of only three minutes before being distracted.

• The main distractors turned out to be information coming from their smartphones and their computers.

Almost as an afterthought, we also asked about their school grades and examined what activities during the 15-minute study period might separate good and bad students. Some of what we found surprised us and some provided sobering thoughts for the future of our students.

Once again, the results were fascinating. The good students were those who:

• Stayed on task for longer periods of time before becoming distracted and

• Had strategies that they applied while studying.

The bad students -- those with lower GPAs -- were those who:

• Consumed more media of all types during a typical day,

• Had a preference for working on several tasks at the same time and switching back and forth between them.

One additional result stunned us: If the student checked Facebook just once during the 15-minute study period, he or she had a lower GPA. It didn't matter if they had Facebook on their computer screen the entire time or if they just checked it once on their computer or phone. Checking in with social media appears to be a marker for poorer school performance.


What I am saying is that electronic communication, particularly social media -- which has reached nearly 100% penetration among preteens and teens -- has a strong attraction and draw and it appears that young students can't help themselves from checking it frequently. Our research shows that the vast majority of teenagers check their e-communication tools every 15 minutes or less and if they can't check in that often, they get highly anxious.


I can tell you what it is not. It is not about taking away all technology and it is not about making them finish their homework before they even get to play video games, check Facebook, text their friends and use their various technological appendages (yes, these devices are every bit as important to them as an arm or a leg). That strategy will not work because even if you remove all technology from their study environment out of sight is not only NOT out of mind but it is FIRMLY IN MIND. In fact, our research shows that for teens and young adults thinking about what they might be missing out on in their virtual worlds -- often referred to as FOMO, or fear of missing out -- is anxiety-provoking and distracting, perhaps even more distracting than watching their smartphone announce a new text message or phone call.

The solution is a bit counterintuitive, but it works. It is called a "Technology Break," or a "Tech Break" for short. Here is how it works. As soon as your son or daughter is ready to do their homework, they get a 1-2 minute tech break (this is negotiable and longer tech breaks can be used as a reinforcement for good studying behavior) during which they can use their phone, computer or whatever technology they desire. At this point, all technology is turned off including the TV, music, smartphone and computer. If the computer is needed for homework, make sure that only the necessary applications or websites are open and nothing else. Have your son or daughter set their phone on silent and set an alarm to ring in 15 minutes. When it rings, they get a tech break to check in with their phone, their computer, whatever for the same one to two minutes and then the process begins again. I like to start with a one-minute tech break and 15-minute study period and then slowly lengthen the study period by about five minutes every few days until you get to about 30 minutes, which is the maximum time most kids can stay disconnected. You can also increase the tech break time from one minute up to whatever you want. Use this as a negotiating tool with your children and as a bonus for good studying behavior.

Tech Breaks sound strange and some parents worry that by doing so they are giving in to their kids, but in fact the opposite is true. Kids appreciate knowing exactly when they will get to check in with their virtual worlds and that it will not be an undefined long time such as "when your homework is done, you can use your phone." It is adaptable, fair to both parents and kids, and it works.