Technology and the Problem of Divided Attention

Written by Cara A. Finnegan, Associate Professor of Communications at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

In recent years the saturation of cell phones, text messaging, and laptops has produced something I call the problem of divided attention. A March 25, 2008 article in the New York Times summarized recent studies of productivity in business settings. Researchers found that after responding to email or text messages, it took people more than 15 minutes to re- focus on the “serious mental tasks” they had been performing before the interruption. Other research has shown that when people attempt to perform two tasks at once (e.g., following what’s happening in class while checking text messages), the brain literally cannot do it. The brain has got to abandon one of the tasks in order effectively to accomplish the other. Hidden behind all the hype about multi-tasking, then, is this sad truth: it can actually make you slower and dumber. For this reason alone you should seek to avoid the problem of divided attention when you are in class.
But there’s another, equally important reason: we technology-users often lose our senses when it comes to norms of polite behavior, and the result is that perfectly lovely people become unbelievably rude. 
For both these reasons, please turn off your cellphones or set them on silent mode when you come to class; it is rude for our activities to be interrupted by a ringing cellphone. Similarly, text messaging will not be tolerated in class; any student found to be sending or checking text messages during class will be invited to make a choice either to cease the texting or leave the classroom. You are welcome to bring your laptop to class and use it to take notes, access readings we’re discussing, and the like. You are not welcome to do social networking, check email, or otherwise perform non-class-related activities during class. Here’s my best advice: If you aren’t using it to perform a task specifically related to what we are doing in class at that very moment, put it away.