Friday, September 27, 2019

Is six hours a day on my phone too much?

This is the third year I have done an unscientific survey of my students in Media Economics about how they use their smartphones.

"WhatsApp Redesign" by Ayoub Elred is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0
The point of the exercise is for them to do their own assessment and make observations. In previous years they simply counted how many notifications or alerts they received on their phones in one hour or a class session. An alert is any ping, buzz, vibration, or lock-screen flash that tells them they have a message or news update from their various applications.

The distraction industry is getting ever more sophisticated in finding ways to get us to pay attention to their messages, because time, or attention, is money. Specifically, it allows tech platforms and news services to deliver targeted ads and make money from our attention.

An alert a minute

This year, 27 students counted notifications received in a 60-minute period. The average was 58, almost an alert a minute. The median --with half registering more, half less-- was 36. (The total alerts received was slightly more than last year and roughly three times the year before, although the unscientific methodology was slightly different each time.)

This is a sobering thought for a professor. A 20-year-old university student who is either in class or studying in the evening might be receiving an alert every minute or two whose aim is to distract them from whatever they are doing.

The response of many teachers and university professors has been to ban cellphones from the classroom. I tried this for a year at another university, and it was a disaster. It turned me into a policeman and the students into sneaks who found imaginative ways to peek at their phones anyway.

Almost six hours a day in the phone   

The rest of the class responded to the question how many minutes they spent each day in each of some dozen applications on a list, and they could fill in any not listed. For these 28 students, the average was 5 1/2 hours, the median nearly 5 hours.

The good news is that students at the university level do almost everything on their phones, including writing their homework assigments, reading assigned texts, and collaborating on group projects.

The top applications: WhatsApp was No. 1, by a huge margin, followed by Instagram. The preferred apps vary depending on a student's home country, and we have about 20 different countries represented in the class. Facebook or Twitter was No. 3. Twitter is used much more in Spain than other countries, in part because its platform can be used for direct messages at no cost to the user. Phone companies charge for messaging in Spain.

Anti-distraction strategies

This year, for the first time, students made many comments about how they counteract the distractions. They seem to be more aware of how social media, videogames, and other distractions can become addictive.
  • One student put her phone in airplane mode for 1 hour. “I have to say I liked it. I did much more reading in less time than I normally do. But when I was reading, I often felt uncomfortable with the idea that I might be missing some ‘important’ messages. After an hour I checked my phone and saw 40 messages from only three different platforms . . . None of the messages was actually important”. 
  • One student spends several hours a day WhatsApping with his girlfriend back in Latin America. “Infinite scrolling on Instagram is also a big problem”.
  • One student sets his Instagram-use alarm at 15 minutes. But ignores it. 
  • Another said, “I spend three hours a day inside my cellphone. That is one-fourth of my daily schedule” of 12 hours. He called it spending a quarter of his productivity “inside a black mirror”.
  • Several students mentioned turning off all alerts during school hours.
  • One student wrote that she gets anxious even when she doesn’t check the alert: “When trying to concentrate is hard having constant "pings" and vibrations, bceause even if you decide not to look at it, there has actually been studies were the subject is equally distracted by the fact that they don't know what they had just received.” 
  • Another wrote that she is “thinking on dropping social media, as it really angers me the way it controls me. There are way too many things I do daily that are just because of social media. I feel like I’m wasting my time on paying attention to stupid alerts that are only telling me what to do all the time, instead of paying attention to all the things around me and doing what I really want. It’s like the pointless opening of the refrigerator: 'We are not hungry and we already know what’s inside'."
Teacher strategies

A colleague here at the University of Navarra, Jose Luis Orihuela, whose specialties include interactive media and social networks, has some sensible recommendations for teachers:

  • Don't demonize the use of social networks in class. It's part of the students' culture.
  • If students are distracted, maybe it's because our presentations aren't stimulating enough.
  • Don't be a policeman, but watch for signs that students are distracted by their screens. Adjust.
  • Social media can be a good way to call attention to good student work.
  • Students can find excellent examples of professionals to follow on social media.
  • Social media can be a springboard for establishing a personal brand.
  • Be careful. What you put on social media can last forever. 

Orihuela's original blog post is in Spanish.


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