Communicating via social media has become the norm. ‘Social media’ is defined in this blog post as any technology that includes “a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of User Generated Content” (Kaplan & Haenlein 2010, p. 61).
Many people use social media as a preferred method of communication, and there are many organisations that have caught on quickly. Instant customer service is now delivered via Twitter, instant messaging, Facebook and blogs, as well as many of these tools being used to conduct in-depth market research and promote new products (Dewar 2012). Social media allows individuals to be visible to others and establish connections with others. These sites can be used for work-related issues, personal issues, business relationships, and shared interests such as music, arts, sports, or politics (Kijpokin 2014).
The 2017 Sensis Social Media Report states that seventy nine percent of Australian Internet users now use social media sites, which is higher than 2016. 59% use social media daily or more often. Australians use social media at home in the lounge, bedroom, kitchen, study, bathroom, and toilet. We access it in the evening, first thing in the morning, at lunchtime, on breaks, before we go to bed, during work and on our way to and from work (Sensis 2017).
5% of Australia’s social media users have felt anxious when unable to access their social media accounts and this number is significantly higher among 18-29 year olds (37%). For this age group, almost everyone aged 18-29 is on social media (99%). Among 18-29 year olds, accessing social media is often the first and last thing they do every day, with eight in ten (79%) using social media first thing in the morning and almost two thirds (65%) last thing before they go to bed (Sensis 2017).
While social media usage is almost everywhere, we are still coming to terms with the impact it is having on society, and this presents both opportunities and challenges for organisations. The challenges are plentiful and include some of the following, relevant acceptable use policies for workplace IT, brand reputation, online bullying, misuse of personal data to name only a few (Macnamara 2012; Persily 2017; Willems, Adachi & Grevtseva 2016).
For the purpose of this paper I will be focusing on the use of social media by students in schools and universities, in particular the issue of distraction management during classes and times when reflective thought processes are required, for example when writing academic papers.
What is it?
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED Online) defines distraction as “the fact or condition of being drawn or pulled (physically or mentally) in different directions by conflicting forces or emotions.”
In the case of the distraction of attention, we can assume that:
- The outside world consists of discrete bits of information
- An internal mind perceives the world by processing these bits of information
- Perception is caused by attention, the processing power of the mind
- Because of the brain’s physical limitations, attention is a finite resource
Distractive use of social media
Today’s secondary and tertiary education providers in Australia have increasingly integrated digital devices such as laptops and tablets into classrooms on the assumption that the use of these technologies will increase student motivation and learning, provide a higher degree of labour market adaptation, individual responsibility, and educational choice for the student (Andersson et al. 2014). However, research shows that students often use these technologies for distractive use, such as social media. Just as connecting to the internet using laptops and tablets brings the world into the classroom, they also provide a backdoor through which students may escape (Aagaard 2015).
By ‘distractive use’ I refer to the times that social media is used for personal and private reasons; disconnected from any curriculum-related learning resulting in students’ attention to schoolwork becoming diverted (Andersson et al. 2014).
Social media is the site of contestation in tertiary education (Willems, Adachi & Grevtseva 2016). The issue that students and academics are facing is that when attention falters during classes, and when writing academic papers, attention is then turned towards social media as a learned behaviour, a distracted use of technology (Aagaard 2015).
Students experience the seductive pull towards off-task websites when their browsers are open and unrelated tabs are visible. Getting caught by this temptation and “accidentally” scrolling down your Facebook newsfeed is different from deciding to go on Facebook to write to a friend or having a notification pop up on your screen to alert you to a new message (Aagaard 2015).
During a study conducted by Andersson, Hatakka, Grönlund & Wiklund (2014), students were asked to rank the social media sites that most often distracted their attention from learning to least often. Facebook was the most frequent answer receiving 42% of the responses. When teachers in the study were asked to mention the major risk for every student in a classroom attending with a laptop, 74% stated distractions such as Facebook (Andersson et al. 2014).
Due to the great percent of time that students spend using social media, particularly through distractive use, their academic performance suffers and their student success is reduced (Junco 2015; Zekiri 2016). This performance deficit could be due to the increased amount of time that students spend working alone as a result of increased social media use. 80% of the students that participated in the research performed by Andersson et al. said that they do more work alone, and 71% of the teachers shared this picture. The students reported “that when they were supposed to study in groups, they instead divided the task among themselves and worked individually”, often in different locations (Andersson et al. 2014, p. 43).
Teachers and lecturers are aware of the challenges posed by off-task use of educational technology. In some schools and universities academic staff have implemented an “open/closed” policy: When a teacher gives the word, students close the lids of their laptops, and only when the teacher grants permission are they allowed to reopen them. Teachers are acknowledging the attractive nature of laptops and social media (Aagaard 2015; Andersson et al. 2014).
Many teachers lack strategies for how to win students attention back (Andersson et al. 2014; Wankel & Wankel 2012). In lieu of academic administration taking action to combat these issues, students are taking the matter on themselves. These students are implementing strategies such as closing a distracting tab in their web browser (e.g., Facebook), quitting their web browser or physically closing the lid of their laptop (Aagaard 2015).
Many students and academics are frustrated by the ease with which they drift into distraction when using their computers. This can be seen by the increase in the availability of “Zenware” programs such as StayFocusd, SelfControl and Freedom which block specific websites or even break your Internet connection (Pang 2013).
The digital technologies that the author of this blog post users to manage disruptive uses of technology (in particular social media use) are the following:
- Momentum Dash, a Chrome extension that displays landscape photographs in the background of the Chrome browser, hiding frequently visited websites and providing functionality to set a key task for the day.
- Utilising the do not disturb mode on a smart phone (iPhone) which is permanently on silent mode. This eliminates all notifications, including phone calls (except for callers in the ‘favourites” list).
- myNoise for custom background noises to assist with creativity and productivity. Research conducted by Mehta, Zhu & Cheema (2012, p. 13) found that a moderate level of ambient noise induces cognitive disfluency, or deeper mental processing, which then leads to abstract thought and consequently enhances creativity.
Managing cognitive load
Educators need to think more deeply about the ways that students interact with social media and develop strategies to assist students to recognise technology addiction and break free from it (Paul, Baker & Cochran 2012). Students should be made aware of the detrimental impact of excessive social media use on their academic performance. Excessive usage of social media has also demonstrated a negative impact on student’s physical and psychological health. This negative impact presents itself as sleep deprivation, insomnia and chronic illnesses (O’Keeffe & Clarke-Pearson 2011).
The following technology free approaches have been used by the author as a holistic way to minimise disruptive use of technology with regard to social media and manage cognitive load, increasing mental efficiency.
Tulsi is commonly made into a tea. This indigenous Indian medicinal plant and its derivatives have been an invaluable source of therapeutic agents to treat various disorders including anxiety (Chatterjee et al. 2011). Ocimum Sanctum (OS) Linn. (Labiatae), popularly known as Tulsi in Hindi and Holy Basil in English, has shown significant anti-stress activity (Gupta et al. 2007). Before settling down to work on academic tasks, a cup of Three Tulsi tea is prepared and drunk whilst working.
Yoga promotes recovery from and treatment of addiction, reduces stress, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain, improves sleep patterns, and enhances overall well-being and quality of life (Woodyard C 2011). All practitioners teaching stress management, including academic administrators should teach yoga as one of the approaches to stress reduction (Sharma 2013). Weekly yoga practice assists greatly in managing cognitive load. Disruptive uses of technology are minimised when practice occurs on a day when reflective thought is required.
The disadvantages of social media from the perspective of educational organisations has been discussed, focusing on the learned behaviour of distractive uses of social media. Loss of concentration, lower grades, and social isolation are just some of the effects of excessive social media use. Technological solutions to manage disruptive use of social media and suggestions for a holistic approach to distraction management have been proposed. In moderation social media has a variety of positive uses, however like any addictive behaviour use of this technology relies on the person showing a modicum of self-control and discipline, and perhaps some form of social media “detox” is needed to achieve psychological balance.
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Kijpokin, K 2014, in Impact of Emerging Digital Technologies on Leadership in Global BusinessIGI Global, Hershey, PA, USA, pp. 183-201.
Macnamara, J 2012, ‘Social organisations’ emerge but lack strategy and governance, viewed 22 May, 2018, <https://theconversation.com/social-organisations-emerge-but-lack-strategy-and-governance-5367>.
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Pang, AS-K 2013, The distraction addiction: Getting the information you need and the communication you want without enraging your family, annoying your colleagues, and destroying your soul Little, Brown and Co., New York.
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Sharma, M 2013, ‘Yoga as an Alternative and Complementary Approach for Stress Management: A Systematic Review’, Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 59-67, <https://doi.org/10.1177/2156587213503344>.
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