Douglas Parry and Daniel le Roux from the Department of Information Science at Stellenbosch University have found that smartphones were affecting students’ ability to concentrate.
he more students were found to be on their phones, the more their academic results dropped, researchers from Stellenbosch University’s Department of Information Science have found.

Lecturer Daniel le Roux and doctoral candidate Douglas Parry said their research showed that smartphones were affecting students’ ability to concentrate.

“While ever-smarter digital devices have made many aspects of our lives easier and more efficient, a growing body of evidence suggests that, by continuously distracting us, they are harming our ability to concentrate,” Le Roux said.

Attention was a “highly sought after resource”, he said.

“Our phones are not just static, there are smart people behind it trying to get our attention. Everyone is fighting for our attention to turn it into profit.”

Le Roux said students were unaware of the “attentional costs” of social media platforms.

“Studies by ourselves and researchers across the world show that students constantly use their phones when they are in class,” he said.

Through experience with his own students, Le Roux said he found that they were struggling to resist the temptation to use their phones in class.

“The negative thing about this for students is that they have the long term academic goal of graduating. Their ability to sustain attention efficiently and effectively on a primary task is critical,” Le Roux said.

While academic administrators wanted more technology in classrooms, “with your laptop and the internet you are just one click away from YouTube”, Le Roux said.

This “supports the structure of distraction while learning institutions should support a culture of focus and reflection”, he added.

“When students use their phones during lectures they do it to communicate with friends, engage in social networks, watch YouTube videos or just browse around the web to follow their interests,” Le Roux said.

The researchers found that there were two primary reasons why this behaviour was problematic from a cognitive control and learning perspective.

“The first is that when we engage in multitasking our performance on the primary task suffers. Making sense of lecture content is very difficult when you switch attention to your phone every five minutes.

“The second reason is that it harms students’ ability to concentrate on any particular thing for an extended period of time.

“They become accustomed to switching to alternative streams of stimuli at increasingly short intervals.

“The moment the lecture fails to engage or becomes difficult to follow, the phones come out.”

Le Roux said the solution lay in students learning to self regulate their phone use when in class.

A podcast on their research and more information can be found at suinformatics.com/ctrg.

[email protected]