The digital overload

Students' excessive media habits could be competing with their ability to retain information.

“Party in the USA” blasts through the speakers while “The Real World” highlights last week’s ultra-dramatic moments on the tube. A Facebook status updates to say, “FML,” and TMZ just tweeted that George Clooney was spotted blowing his nose.

But still the student keeps plugging away at the 10-page term paper due at 8 a.m. tomorrow.

Is this how you operate?

A major concern has developed among researchers that our generation’s extreme media exposure is negatively impacting our school performance.

Recent studies by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Stanford University have highlighted the dramatic increase in media use by today’s youth and the potentially damaging effect of media multitasking, or the use of two technological devices at the same time.

Bad habits start young
Media addiction starts early. There are whole cable channels dedicated to showing children their favorite shows 24 hours a day.

Kaiser researchers specifically studied the media consumption of 8- to 18-year-olds, said Theresa Boston, program associate for the study of media and health at KFF.

Besides kids’ overall television, music, computer and video game consumption increasing since 2004, their use of two or more of these devices at the same time also rose exponentially, Boston said.

According to KFF’s study, 8- to 18-year-olds now spend a total of seven hours and 38 minutes each day on various media outlets.

And when you include media multitasking, that figure increases to 10 hours and 45 minutes per day. Researchers counted one hour of simultaneously watching TV and listening to music as two hours of media consumption.

Among heavy media users, or kids who media multitask for a combined total of 16 hours per day or more, 47 percent reported having fair to poor grades.

Among light media users, or three hours or less of media use per day, only 23 percent reported fair to poor grades.

Boston said heavy media users could just be suffering at school because they are bypassing their studies to watch TV. The fact remains, however, that too much media is causing some people’s brains to lose focus.

Distractions, distractions
It’s not just snot-nosed brats who are obsessed with their technology.

Eyal Ophir, a professor at Stanford University, and two other colleagues studied the effects of high amounts of media multitasking on Stanford students.

Ophir started his study by selecting the heaviest and lightest media multitaskers from a survey of 262 students. The students then performed a series of tests on their cognitive, or mind-related, abilities.

“These were very specific tests,” Ophir wrote in an e-mail to the Tribune.

The experiment conducted by Stanford tested a person’s ability to ignore pointless information in their mind and irrelevant information right in front of them. The experiment also tested students’ ability to switch quickly between tasks.

According to the Stanford study, heavy media multitaskers performed worse on both tests. Ophir said they were unable to focus on the task at hand because they were still thinking about the previous test.

“When you’re a media multitasker, you’re always surrounding yourself with lots of interesting things,” Ophir said. “And all these different things are all fighting for your attention.”

Or in other words, if you are talking on the phone to your mother and you notice Alex Rodriguez jacking a home run on ESPN, you might miss her telling you that your dog just died.

“So even when you’re trying to focus on one thing, it might be that you’re still paying a bit of attention to everything else – just to catch anything interesting that might happen,” Ophir added. “And so it seems you never fully focus, and this might be the reason our results were as they were.”

Ophir said studies in the past have proven that the mind’s ability to process more than one piece of media at a time is limited.

Tough to shake
Students’ growing inability to focus is not lost on Marquette instructors. Erik Ugland, a professor in the College of Communication, started banning the use of laptops in his classroom this semester because of student complaints.

He said he does not believe students retain as much knowledge with a laptop in class compared to when they write notes down on paper. He also said other students have a hard time concentrating with a computer in the vicinity.

“I got tons of complaints from students who sat behind people with computers,” Ugland said. “All those flashing lights on the laptops distract students.”

Many students maintain that they are unable to concentrate on their homework without some sort of media playing in the background.

Emily Meyer, a junior in the College of Nursing, said she always listens to her iPod while reading for classes.

“It’s harder for me to do homework without my music because every little sound that breaks the silence distracts me,” Meyer said. “Having my favorite music going puts me in the zone.”

Chris Gorski, a sophomore in the College of Health Sciences, said he can’t handle any media when he is trying to study.

“When I have a test to study for, I try to go to an empty part of the library where I can be alone and isolated,” Gorski said. “If I try to study for too long in my dorm room I get distracted and end up turning on the TV.”

When it comes to how students study, there are no set guidelines that work for everyone, Ophir said. He suggested avoiding technology that’s going to attract your attention while studying.

“There are different combinations of media, and some may very well be more or less harmful than others,” he said. “I think the key is to try to stay in control, instead of letting the media control your attention.”

Or in other words, if watching Kenny Mayne on SportsCenter is likely to grab hold of a student’s attention, Ophir would recommend not doing homework with a sports game on.

If, however, Lifetime’s flick about a group of teens who vow to get pregnant is not going to distract this same student, it’s not that big of a deal to read for Western Civilization while the TV is on.

But it could be difficult for some students to change their study habits. Boston said kids’ media and study habits have a lot to do with the ground rules of the house they grew up in.

Meyer’s study habits began more than a decade ago during elementary school.

“When I was in grade school, I was home schooled, and my mom and I listened to classical music all day, so I was allowed to listen to music while I studied,” said Meyer.

Ophir added that there has been some work demonstrating that humans can make only one decision at any given moment.

“Which really means that in a single moment, you’re actively thinking one thought,” he said.

So, either try your best to ignore the awesomeness that is Miley Cyrus or turn your iPod off. You have a 10-page paper due.

“It seems the human mind really is built to do one thing at a time – at least just one thing that requires thought,” Ophir said.