Do Digital Distractions Result in Poor School Performance?

By Dr. Raymond Huntington

Learning in the digital age is a frequent topic of conversation here at Huntington Learning Center, and it certainly raises a lot of questions. For parents who grew up without technology so readily accessible like it is today, the main one is: do electronics help or hinder my child’s school performance?

Here are a few interesting observations about the negative impact of internet-enabled electronics—laptops, tablets and cell phones—reported from several recent studies:

  • A 2016 Psychological Science study recorded college students’ laptop internet use in class and found that nonacademic internet use (e.g. social media, videos, email and online shopping) was frequent and inversely related to performance on the subject’s cumulative final exam—regardless of interest in the class, motivation to succeed and intelligence (full article: “Logged In and Zoned Out: How Laptop Internet Use Relates to Classroom Learning”). In other words, even if a student was interested in a subject and deemed intelligent (based on other test scores), the use of the internet in classes had a negative impact on his or her final exam score.
  • The same study did not find that accessing the internet for academic purposes was related to any benefit in performance. In other words, even if a student went on the internet during class for something academic in nature, doing so didn’t benefit his or her final exam score.
  • A 2019 study in Educational Psychology: an International Journal of Experimental Psychology found that students’ exam performance was poorer for the material taught in classes that allowed electronic use than those that did not (full article: “Dividing attention in the classroom reduces exam performance”).
  • The same study also found that students in the device-permitting classroom that did not use devices still scored lower, which points to the likelihood that such students were distracted by devices around them.
  • A 2013 study in Communication Education found that of students who watched a video lecture, took notes and took quizzes afterward, those who did not use their mobile phones wrote down 62% more information, took more detailed notes and were able to recall more detailed information from the lecture than those who did use mobile phones during the lecture (full article: “The Impact of Mobile Phone Usage on Student Learning”).
  • The same study found that the students who did not use their mobile phones during class scored a full letter grade higher on a multiple-choice test than those who actively used their mobile phones.

While there’s no question that the internet and electronic devices that connect us to it have opened up a world of possibilities for learning and knowledge acquisition, the research is clear: digital distraction is a real problem for today’s students.

What can you as a parent do to ensure your child’s school performance does not suffer because he or she uses a cell phone and/or laptop regularly (in class or outside of it)? Here are a few tips:

  1. Teach your child about the importance of concentrating during set periods of time and also taking mental breaks while working. This practice improves focus and retention and encourages your child to separate school work and screen time.
  2. If your child doesn’t need the computer or phone while doing homework, he or she should set them aside.
  3. Teach your child how to set rules for study/homework time and hold him or herself accountable to those rules.
  4. Encourage your child to establish short-term objectives for every homework session. Having a to-do list to work from will help your child stay on task and avoid digital distractions.

If your child is struggling to focus, it may be that he or she needs help developing a good study system—and it’s certainly possible that something else is going on. Call Huntington at 1-800 CAN LEARN to learn how we can help your child become a more efficient, productive student in the digital age.