While modern technology can help improve productivity, it can also kill it. Multi-tasking is a myth, at least in humans. Yes, we’re capable of doing two or more things simultaneously, but they must be simple. Otherwise, our brain must switch between tasks rapidly, so for one to get undivided attention, others have to suffer. This leaves us incapable of dividing our brainpower equally or into set percentages to two or more processes like computers can. But what exactly causes our efficacy to plummet nowadays? That’s precisely what we’ll determine as we analyze how technology distracts us. Let’s begin.
1. Social media
We’ll begin with the most obvious way technology distracts us – the existence of social media. And while there are pros and cons to social media, plummeting productivity is one of the biggest drawbacks. As of early 2021, 97% of Americans own a cell phone and close to 85% of those own a smartphone. As such, they’re all prone to checking for updates every few minutes. Smartphone users have an additional source of distractions – high-resolution consuming content. This can lead them to procrastinate for hours on end. Even people that try their best are disrupted by sound or buzzing notifications. Of course, in our analysis of why social media is bad, we concluded it preys on human psychology.
We aren’t finished with social media. We merely placed it alongside its biggest userbase – students. They suffer positive and negative effects of technology in education, the latter of which results in coined terms such as academic distraction. It is defined as the potential of internal stimuli (wandering mind) or external stimuli (social media, smart devices, computers) to interrupt students’ studies.
Studies into digital distraction in education
A 2015 study by Carrier, Rosen, Cheever, and Lim found that media multitasking from laptop use in a class environment negatively impacted academic performance measures by GPA, as well as learning. They attributed this to browser design, which allowed opening tens of tabs at once. A 2020 study by Alghamdi, Karpinski, Lepp, and Barkle also noticed a connection between the availability of free wireless Internet throughout campuses and the use of digital devices for non-academic purposes during classes. Other studies examined direct effects. And, they all agree students’ comprehension and data retention levels shrunk significantly. Even worse, they don’t have to be users themselves. A 2013 study by Sana, Weston, & Ceped showed a reduction of test scores in students who could see the screen of other students’ laptops.
Modern technology in education is a double-edged sword for note-taking during class. It allows students to take exhaustive notes by typing or recording audio/video. As a result, students are often unfocused, knowing they can study later. What’s more, they usually distract others around them. In contrast, taking notes in longhand, even with modern fast handwriting pens, according to a 2014 study by Mueller and Oppenheimer, requires deeper brain processing because of paraphrasing. Because they cannot write as fast as type, students must “translate” spoken or written words into notes. While good for information retention and requires less studying later, it distracts students from the ongoing lecture.
While it helps keep us safe in traffic, technology distracts us as well. Car accident reports show that distracted driving is one of its most common causes, even though it isn’t all tech-related. Moreover, most car crashes are caused by disruptions – momentary disturbances that may or may not stop someone’s productivity. But due to the presence of other people in traffic or nearby, on foot or other vehicles, a moment is all it takes. Additional obstruction comes from smart devices present in vehicles, encouraged through mounts or built-in gadgets. Vehicles also have too many shining lights, sound notifications, and fancy features. All of these divert drivers’ attention and take their eyes off the road and hands off the wheel. Also, more and more vehicles now come with auto-pilot (check new technology inventions) that can also automatically park. This relaxes drivers into a false sense of safety.
The rapid development of the Internet widened the gaps between generations and members of the same generation. The data supports it – in early 2021 data shows people spend 155 minutes on mobiles and 37 minutes on computers daily, per capita, per device. To see it in practice, take a building block of relationships – eating a meal together. Instead of interacting amongst each other, participants usually entertain themselves with devices, whether smart devices, computers, or TVs. So, while physically present, they’re mentally absent. This can be beneficial if done jointly. But solo technology use prevents people from paying attention, reduces their attention span, and diverts them from bonding with others. As a result, researchers coined the term, phubbing, from the words “phone” and “snubbing” in 2019. It’s defined as engaging with one’s phone while interacting within a social environment.
Research into productivity in the workplace shows that office distractions consume about 2 hours of a workday per person alone. Tests have also concluded that workers switch activities every 3 minutes, e.g., can shift focus up to 20 times per hour but could only focus for 11 minutes at a time (time without distractions per person). The same studies show that once distracted, a worker needed between 23 and 25 minutes to return to the task fully, if at all.
Co-worker interaction and job performance
Co-workers can be the reason technology distracts us in the workplace. They tend to call, text, send e-mails, or even worse, pop up to show you irrelevant things as you’re trying to focus. What’s more, they often invite you to lunch or a gathering you feel obligated to go to, diverting you from your original plans. Even worse, once physically present, technology can erode co-worker relationships in ways we mentioned above, making gatherings fruitless.
The cause of job accidents is often inexperience or distraction, but also both, simultaneously. Jobs that involve traveling or transport have the same downsides we mentioned under traffic. Those that don’t usually rely on technology to provide failsafe against human error, lack of knowledge, or lack of focus. The thing is, technology can and does fail. And while that failure can be shrugged off in some professions without ill effects, in others, it carries disastrous, long-term, or even fatal consequences.