Smartphones Have Changed Student Attention, Even When Students Aren’t Using Them

When teachers think their students aren’t paying attention in class, they’re probably right. And that’s true even when instructors force students to put away their smartphones.

That’s what Georgetown University professor Jeanine Turner found in her research about how tech has shaped social relationships. Her argument is that our internet-connected devices have changed the way people relate to others, even when devices are temporarily removed.

Turner, who is a professor of management and director of the Communication, Culture, and Technology program, outlined her framework for understanding this new attention landscape in her book, “Being Present: Commanding Attention at Work (and at Home) by Managing Your Social Presence.” Many of the examples she uses stem from her experience teaching, from interviews with college students, and from investigations of the impact of distance education.

EdSurge connected with Turner to learn about this new world of fragmented attention and what educators can do to reach these increasingly distracted students.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript, edited for clarity, below.

EdSurge: I was struck by your point in your book that we are never away from our smartphones, even when we try to put them away. What do you mean by that?

Jeanine Turner: There have been some researchers that said, ‘Just turn your phone off, and that solves it.’ But the problem is, it doesn’t solve it because of this asynchronous nature of messaging where we can have emails piling up. We can have texts that we need to respond to. And the capability of that means that we can, in many ways, never be fully present in a conversation — because you’re always thinking of a conversation you’re supposed to be in or an expectation from someone else that is in the back of your mind. Or you’re talking to me about something, and it reminds me, ‘Oh, I forgot. I was supposed to send an email back or get back to this other person.’ And so it really has complicated all of our communication.

So it’s really not even an individual decision anymore because I might individually decide that I want to talk with you right now, but maybe my boss, maybe a co-worker, maybe a team member, maybe a family member, needs to reach me, and wants to have me be available to them at this time. And then I have to make decisions about that. So we really can’t think of how we operate in a silo.

You use a phrase for this that you call ‘budgeted attention.’ What does that mean?

It’s if we think about our attention as a resource and then try to think about, ‘OK, then where do we spend that attention to make the most of the relationships that we really care about?’ It really helps us to focus and understand this resource of social presence and how we need to approach it.

When we have these technologies, we basically are in this default state most of the time where we have our phones available to us, or we might be on Zoom, but we’re also looking to see if some other message comes in. So we have this sense that we can actually do this and be in all these conversations at the same time. But what we have to recognize is that we are actually allocating part of our attention to one thing and part to another. And our brains really can’t multitask like that — not to do something as complex as managing my relationship with you and my relationship with someone else.

So, that’s why I use this budget metaphor. Not only is it hard to create priorities in our lives around our social presence, but we also have to be strategic and intentional if we’re going to spend our social presence in the best way for our relationships.

I’m curious about this idea that we’re bad at multitasking. But I’ll admit I have done that thing where I’m in a Zoom meeting but also checking my email. Can’t we do both?

So we do it, but something’s lost, qualitatively, relationship-wise.

If it’s a routine message, and I’ve talked about this topic with you 15 times, I might think I can check my email at the same time. But if you think I’m not paying attention to you, that’s going to have an impact on that relationship. They see you’re not paying attention to them. The research says that even if you have your phone face up versus face down, that has an impact on what people say to you — about how much they decide to connect and talk — because [they say less] if they don’t think they’re getting attention.

What’s happening is that we are devaluing listening.

How has this played out in your classrooms? You’ve taught at Georgetown for more than 20 years, and you wrote that you used to walk into class and everyone would be chatting, but these days, everyone is on their phones or laptops instead of talking to each other.

What used to happen was a lot of impromptu, casual questions among students like, ‘Hey? What are you interested in? What have you been doing? What’s going on? Are you going to the game this weekend?’ All of that.

Now, students have stopped doing it. I’ve actually had students say there’s a two-week window at the beginning of college when it’s kind of OK to be like, ‘Hi, my name’s Jeanine. I’m from here; where are you from?’ But after that, you’re not supposed to interrupt people anymore in a class and get someone off their phone and talk.

You come to college. You’re in a brand-new place. You don’t know anyone. But you have all these relationships with your high school friends, so you keep talking to them on your device — on Instagram or Snapchat — and you don’t even have to make new friends in person.

And it’s so hard to make new friends in person, and [students] now don’t know how to do it. And in a classroom everyone’s quiet, and no one’s interacting and engaging at the beginning. So unless the professor is creating these get-to-know-you activities in every class — which I don’t think professors are used to doing, but they need to — then you really aren’t creating these opportunities for relationships.

Let’s talk about solutions. What are some things that institutions and instructors can do?

You’re in what I call a ‘competitive presence’ in a classroom. I need to persuade you about something. So I really need to think about, ‘Why do you care about this topic? Why do you need to know about this topic? What does it matter to you? How can I make it completely relevant to you?’

It’s like, ‘How do I sell this?’ I know teachers don’t want to think of themselves as salespeople, but you’re either selling in the classroom, or you’re trying to figure out, ‘How do I create a space of dialogue?’ And that has to be intentional.

For example, I’m going to be teaching my first class on Wednesday, and I’ll be teaching undergraduates. And I’m really thinking about, ‘What am I gonna do on Wednesday to create norms for dialogue in that class?’ And it’s not something that I alone can create. I’m gonna ask all the students, ‘What kind of class do you want to have over the course of the semester?’ ‘Think about what your favorite class was; what was the dynamic in that class like? How did people talk in that class? How did you get to know other people in that class? What kind of things can we do in this class to make that happen?‘

It’s not going to be me imposing those norms. We have to create those norms together, and it seems like a very weird thing to do. Like why is that even part of a class? But if you want to create an invitational space — a space that says people feel comfortable talking, people feel that their opinion is valued, and people feel free to engage and express — it has to be a collaborative conversation about how that’s gonna happen.

I guess teachers have always had to convince students to pay attention, but you’re saying it’s different now?

I absolutely believe that every teacher, every presenter in a business situation, if you want people’s attention on you, you have to know that you’re competing for the attention of that person with that phone, and that phone is going to be continually buzzing throughout your conversation, and if people don’t think that they need to be paying attention to you rather than whatever they’re doing on their phone, or you keep saying the same thing over, or you haven’t provided enough incentive as to why you should listen to me, then people are going to choose something else.

The audience has more agency and choice than ever in the history of presentations. Now, because of that device, every single moment, they’re choosing whether to pay attention to you or pay attention to that device. And because of that, you never have this kind of idea of a captive audience. You’re always competing.

In your book, you note that people think they can multitask in meetings, but they often miss information — especially when the information is challenging or when the person speaking is someone they disagree with. How does this impact discussions in classes?

I did this study with a colleague at Georgetown, where subjects had to listen to this NPR story while also managing this inbox activity. When we tested them later on the NPR story, we found that if a question was about a specific part of that story that happened at the same time a message came in, they missed the question. So what’s challenging is we don’t really know what is important, but we’re already self-selecting out of that.

I think the university and the classroom are really spaces for learning. And learning is hard. And I might have access to information that makes me uncomfortable or makes me feel awkward. But here, it should be a safe space so I can better understand where another person is coming from.

We talk a lot about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and we think it’s so easy to put those three words together. But if you value diversity and you value inclusion, then you have to value conflict. Because if I have a diverse opinion, but I feel included in sharing it, that means that you, who have a different opinion, are not going to be happy with that opinion that I shared. And you have to feel included to share your opinion. That means diversity and inclusion require conflict and requires creating a safe space so that we can learn. Otherwise, all we have are diverse environments where no one speaks, and no one feels included. And that is a tragedy.

And if that happens in our universities, if that happens in our K-12 schools, if that help happens in our educational environments that are supposed to be spaces for learning, then we have failed.