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Too many texts: Cellphone experiment shows impact on learning

May 25, 2022, 12:04 PM | Updated: Jun 8, 2022, 5:23 pm

SOUTH JORDAN, UtahCellphones are a distraction in school. That well-researched fact surprises no one. What may be a surprise is to what extent they impact concentration. 

A teacher at Elk Ridge Middle School in South Jordan recently conducted an experiment to demonstrate the problem. The results surprised even her. 

Christie Urquijo encouraged all her students to take out their phones, turn up the volume and track how many notifications they received during the roughly 40 minutes in class. 

Immediately, the pings and chimes filled the classroom. As Urquijo tried to discuss world religion, students tracked every Snap, text, message and game notification. At the end of class, they tallied the results. 

“That was crazy!” said Urquijo. “I knew they were going to get a lot of notifications. I didn’t know they were going to get over 500.”  

School faculty had identified cellphone issues as one of the top three problems at their school. So, this experiment was intended to send a message to students and parents. Even students acknowledge cellphones distract. 

“It’s really hard to focus on other things,” said Joslyn Pedersen.  

Research shows, on average, students look at their phones every 15 minutes. Admittedly though, it may seem like every 15 seconds. 

Other studies show, it’s not just the “ping” and the stolen glance that interrupt concentration. Once a student is distracted, it can take about 23 minutes to re-engage in a task. 

Furthermore, students don’t even have to hear the notification to become distracted. 

“You still get the buzzes in your pocket. You kind of feel like you’re missing out if you don’t have the stuff you want, the message,” said student Ben Owens. 

Dr. Larry Rosen, professor emeritus at California State University Dominguez Hills, has done extensive research on teens and cellphones. He says that fear of missing out — or FOMO — is real. 

“They’re afraid if they’re not hooked up all the time, they’re going to miss out on something important,” he said. 

His experiments have demonstrated kids are not only distracted – cellphones also create anxiety. 

“Even just watching those little bubbles go on the iPhone, back and forth and back and forth,” he said. “Waiting for someone to respond can create a lot of anxiety.” 

To demonstrate this, he hooked up students to finger electrodes that measure heart rate and galvanic skin response, or how much your skin sweats. Researchers told students to watch a video while their phones were moved out of reach. Then they secretly started texting students, who could hear, but now couldn’t see the notifications. 

“Every single time, they spiked their GSR, meaning their skin response showed a lot of arousal,” Rosen said. 

Back in class, Urquijo and her students tallied up the hashmarks. In just 40 minutes, students had received: 

  • 485 text messages
  • 123 social media notifications
  • 54 other notifications 

While even Urquijo was surprised by the number – a total of 662 notifications – it explains why she can no longer cover her long-time class curriculum. 

“Something we could easily have gotten done in 20 minutes years ago, is now taking so much longer,” she said. 

Students also agree disruptions make it hard to focus on their classwork.  

“I get less work done in class and so I have more homework,” says student Kadie Stokes. 

With the writing on the wall, so to speak, what to do? 

An analysis in Education Week found more than 30 U.S. districts or schools have enacted some sort of cellphone restrictions. 

Just last month, two high schools in Missouri banned cellphones and smart watches 

But that is exactly the opposite solution Rosen recommends. 

“What I tell parents is, ‘Please don’t take away the phone from your kid. That’s just going to cause major anxiety,’” he said. 

Instead, Rosen suggests helping kids to re-train their ability to focus, starting with 15-minute increments, followed by a one-minute text check, the work on expanding the time. 

Also, have tech-free zones for kids to disengage from their phones, like during dinner or sleep. And, he suggests minimizing notifications. 

That is something the Elk Ridge Middle School principal supports. He urges parents and students to explore settings that exist in most phones to allow notifications to be silenced or shut off during school.  “We really just want the kids to learn to exist with the technology in a way that makes it so they can function,” says Curtis Jenson. 

He and other educators agree, since smart phones are part of our world, we need to help kids to better manage the technology, not the other way around. 

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Too many texts: Cellphone experiment shows impact on learning