Teens just gotta text

Today’s hyper-social teens are compulsive communicators, writes Jeffrey Zaslow in the Wall Street Journal.

A 17-year-old boy, caught sending text messages in class, was recently sent to the vice principal’s office at Millwood High School in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The vice principal, Steve Gallagher, told the boy he needed to focus on the teacher, not his cellphone. The boy listened politely and nodded, and that’s when Mr. Gallagher noticed the student’s fingers moving on his lap.

He was texting while being reprimanded for texting.

“Educators who try to be enlightened” have persuaded themselves that texters, twitterers and Facebook checkers have “attention scope” which is just as good as having an attention span. They’re multi-tasking. Others say they’re wasting time on trivia.

Vice-Principal Gallagher can’t get students to leave their communication devices at home. “It’s like talking to kids about why they don’t need air.”

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  1. Two points: First, there have been numerous studies done which show that multitaskers are not as good as non-multitaskers at getting work done. It stands to reason, I would guess, that being interrupted doesn’t help one’s productivity.

    Second, those who say that facebook, twitter, texting, etc. improve communication skills obviously haven’t engaged in “communication” using one of these media. It may be communication by the strict definition but I would contend that these are not only inefficient communication media but teens rarely pass quality information over these channels. Just because you can text or use facebook doesn’t mean you have anything useful to say.

    I would suspect that the “signal to noise ratio” on twitter or facebook is very low: Lots of noise, little signal. But that’s to be expected when communication becomes “free”: there is no disincentive to communicate meaningless noise. Businesses should be worried about this: noise is definitely not good. It isn’t as bad as misinformation but it won’t get work done.

  2. Patrick, I use Facebook and text and in my experience the signal to noise ratio is high. Of course it depends on your idea of what signal is. In my experience people exchange a lot of gossip and planning social events. Basically it’s recreating the environment of a village where you’d stop off and exchange a brief chat about how your lives are going in the course of going about your daily life.

  3. From the Wall Street Journal article:
    “A study this year by psychology students at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Ga., found that the more time young people spend on Facebook, the more likely they are to have lower grades and weaker study habits. Heavy Facebook users show signs of being more gregarious, but they are also more likely to be anxious, hostile or depressed. (Doctors, meanwhile, are now blaming addictions to “night texting” for disturbing the sleep patterns of teens.)”

    A Stanford researcher found that multitasking harms multitaskers, even when they aren’t involved in multitasking. “People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time, a group of Stanford researchers has found.”

  4. A number of charters I know, including ours, simply don’t allow any use of cell phones. Teacher sees or hears it, it’s taken. For a week. We carefully get pre-buy-in from all parents. Some don’t like the rule, but it’s part of the package.

  5. Parent2 – did the researchers control for the possibility that the causality runs from weaker study habits to poor grades and more time on Facebook? I think students have been procrastinating for centuries.

  6. I must run out, and will have more time to look into this later. I’d assume, though, that their study subjects were Stanford undergraduates, as is common for most university psych studies. Thus, not a low-achieving group. They weren’t looking at academic factors, either, more the ability to process information. It looks like they just split the group into heavy vs. light uses of media multitasking. The subjects weren’t multitasking during the tests–the tests showed differences in attention correlating with media use!

    ‘In each of their tests, the researchers split their subjects into two groups: those who regularly do a lot of media multitasking and those who don’t.

    In one experiment, the groups were shown sets of two red rectangles alone or surrounded by two, four or six blue rectangles. Each configuration was flashed twice, and the participants had to determine whether the two red rectangles in the second frame were in a different position than in the first frame.

    They were told to ignore the blue rectangles, and the low multitaskers had no problem doing that. But the high multitaskers were constantly distracted by the irrelevant blue images. Their performance was horrible.

    Because the high multitaskers showed they couldn’t ignore things, the researchers figured they were better at storing and organizing information. Maybe they had better memories.

    The second test proved that theory wrong. After being shown sequences of alphabetical letters, the high multitaskers did a lousy job at remembering when a letter was making a repeat appearance.

    “The low multitaskers did great,” Ophir said. “The high multitaskers were doing worse and worse the further they went along because they kept seeing more letters and had difficulty keeping them sorted in their brains.”

    Still puzzled

    Puzzled but not yet stumped on why the heavy multitaskers weren’t performing well, the researchers conducted a third test. If the heavy multitaskers couldn’t filter out irrelevant information or organize their memories, perhaps they excelled at switching from one thing to another faster and better than anyone else.

    Wrong again, the study found.

    The test subjects were shown images of letters and numbers at the same time and instructed what to focus on. When they were told to pay attention to numbers, they had to determine if the digits were even or odd. When told to concentrate on letters, they had to say whether they were vowels or consonants.

    Again, the heavy multitaskers underperformed the light multitaskers.

    “They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing,” Ophir said. “The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds.”‘

  7. Margo/Mom says:

    Tracy W–I think that Facebook is becoming normalized by the presence of people our age. It’s become so last week. Personally I have found it to be a helpful way to expand my network of folks I have known over time by may not still be in daily or weekly contact with.

    As for twitter–I get the same universal answer–that’s for old people.

    But, in terms of school, I think that there are more and less beneficial means of responding. The charter that got parent buy-in for one-week removal of phones used in class moved effectively. Other effective responses include incorporation of the tools to those already available for education (there is an in-school facebook clone that can be used for group assignments, etc)–twittering assignment updates, etc.

    It’s always important to think about what we are trying to teach. Just getting rid of a distracting annoyance frequently leads to power struggles that are less than productive. I can come up with a list of very acceptable reasons that students ought not chew gum in class. In the end that might not be a hill worth dying on. Involving students in an exercise in self-government by considering implementation, enforcement and ramifications of various policies regarding food, candy and other edibles and potables on campus and in classrooms–and then accepting responsibility for carrying them out–probably a far more worthy endeavor.

    Personal technology in the classroom is pretty similar. There are most likely many ways to tackle the issue–with many different outcomes.

  8. Parent2, again though we can’t draw from this the conclusion that multi-tasking causes loss of concentration, it may be that students who can’t concentrate as well are drawn to multi-tasking.
    Of course it also may be that multi-tasking does cause poor concentration. Just I don’t see how these researchers have gotten around the causation problem.

  9. At our (charter) school, personal electronic devices are banned during school hours. Exceptions can be made for the use of calculators and laptops, if appropriate and supervised. If a staff member sees an IPod, cellphone, or similar device, we take it away, and a parent has to come and pick it up. Texting is not really a problem here.


  10. Margo it all depends on what the default mode is. If electronic devices are always out of play except when the teacher decides that they’re in play, that’s OK. But there is no easy way (or even feasible way) to hold them to controlled use, if they’re in the possession of the students and not subject to confiscation. The level of self-control that students would have to have, if they’re allowed to bring phones, etc to class and expected to use the honor system to regulate their use, is not possessed by most students.

  11. CharterMom says:

    I would say this phenomenon is not just limited to teens. I work at a place where all managers (mostly middle-aged) are given blackberries. It is amazing to sit in meetings, watch those things buzz and watch many of the managers be unable to help themselves and grab them and read and respond. And this happens even at times when the manager should be engaged in the meeting. They don’t call them crackberries for nothing.

    Another thing I’ve noticed is that the email communications coming from these same people are often short, vague and subject to misinterpretation. Often no background or context is provided even on complex issues. And if a longer detailed email is sent — it often isn’t read (or at least not comprehended). So communications tends to suffer and there is a lot of frustration and productivity is reduced.

  12. Margo/Mom says:

    Charter Mom–it’s all about the appropriate medium for the message. Blackberry emails (usually a standout because so few of us adults are really accurate thumb-typers) can facilitate handling of short, immediate kinds of things. One of the things my boss’s secretary knows is where he is and whether it is a good time for Blackberry conversation. Also very good for scanning through things in order to know what is waiting for a good read at a later date.

    Tweets (although I confess, I haven’t figured the danged thing out yet) are good for emergency notifications (Team won, final score or snow emergency closes schools at 2 PM). RSS feeds save one the trouble of checking a frequently updated site every day to see what’s new.

    Some communication requires a phone call, or a face-to-face–and even these things are changing somewhat as the options abound.

    I have sometimes found it very useful to ask my son to text me a picture to verify that he actually is where he claims to be. Chicago parents whose kids were daily traversing the war zone to get to the school bus set up a schedule of calling or texting everyday to let mom know they had gotten on the bus.

  13. Real simple solution. No cell phones in the classroom (teachers included). For any reason. Anytime. Anywhere. Ever. Confiscate phones found in the classroom (teachers included). Don’t tell me it can’t be done. If it can’t be done, it’s not a school. It is something else, but it’s not a school.

  14. As a middle school teacher, I want the authority to smash confiscated cell phones. Do you think we can get our state legislators to get behind this plan?

  15. Bill Leonard says:

    Good for you, Ben F.!

    Stomp on every device you can find! Slap the little and middling shits upside the head, if that’s what it takes to make’em pay attention!

    Sadly, not enough teachers (nor, God knows, Administrators) are willing to take direct action.

    I fear for the future of my country.



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