Going the distance

Could technology be holding you back?

By Edward T. Creagan, M.D. September 9, 2014

Need more help?

If the stress in your life is more than you can cope with, get help right away.

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
    1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Go to the nearest hospital or emergency room
  • Call your physician, health provider or clergy
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness
    1-800-950-NAMI (6264)

We live in a world where nearly everyone is "on the grid" all the time. This is especially true among young adults. Should society be worried by this? Some say no, suggesting that young people are adept at multitasking. But is this true?

A fascinating study looked at this issue among college students. Participants were asked to bring their laptops to a lecture and use them to take notes, just as they might normally do in class. They were told to expect a test at the end of the lecture. In addition, half of the students were asked to complete 12 online tasks during the lecture. Not surprisingly, the multitasking students scored 11 percent lower on the post-lecture test.

In a second phase of the study, randomly selected students were asked to put away their laptops and to take notes using paper and pencil instead. These students were seated so that they had either a view of other students using laptops or an unimpeded view of the lecturer. The students using the laptops mimicked the multitaskers from the first phase of the study by typing notes and performing other tasks on their laptops during the lecture.

Astonishingly, the students taking notes on paper who were able to see peers using laptops scored 17 percent lower on the post-lecture test. This suggests that merely seeing other students multitasking was a distraction for students attempting to focus on the lecturer.

Of course, it's not just young people who are affected. At a recent medical meeting, I sat at a circular table with eight colleagues to discuss important issues regarding patient safety and quality. I could see that half of my colleagues were using their phones under the table. They were unfocused and distracted, and as a result some important quality and safety measures were not recognized.

So what can be done? In the corporate world, I've been at meetings where the facilitator instructs everyone to turn off their devices so they can focus on the discussion at hand. Perhaps this rule needs to be extended to the classroom and beyond.

Clearly we can't afford the status quo. If we don't de-screen, de-clutter and unplug, we will never achieve the greatness that we could, shortchanging ourselves and our communities.


Edward T. Creagan, M.D.

Follow on Twitter: @EdwardCreagan

Join the discussion at #Stress.

Sept. 09, 2014