Technology Distraction: Is Instagram Winning Out Over Homework?

By Sandra Gordon

When 14-year old Ellie Rosic does her homework, her phone is “crucial”, says her dad, Andy, an IT specialist. “But as I see it, two per cent of the time, Ellie is asking friends about homework and 98 per cent of the time she’s texting random emojis, checking Facebook and Pinterest and taking Buzzfeed quizzes.” Ellie also has her iPad propped up next to her laptop to watch YouTube or stream music. “Homework takes three times as long because of the distractions,” Rosic says.

He’s right. Although some teens would argue that their generation is just better at multitasking and that getting “Snaps” while reading World History, for example, helps them concentrate, don’t buy it. 

The Problem: Technology Can Detract

“Multitasking makes you more distracted,” says Jodi Gold, MD, author of “Screen Smart Parenting” and director of the Gold Center for Mind, Health and Wellness.

Multitasking or using multiple devices won’t cause attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. “That’s a myth,” Dr. Gold says, but it can make teens more inefficient. 

“When your brain switches back and forth, your ability to attend to both activities decreases. It’s more tiring for your brain too,” she says. 

Moreover, managing social media can be a big responsibility. If teens are worried about not responding or needing to respond to texts or keeping up a SnapChat streak, the resulting anxiety can draw them away from their homework.

Still, “technology is here to stay, and we have to find a place for it,” says Katie Schumacher, author of Don’t Press Send: A Mindful Approach to Social Media. After all, Facetiming or video chatting with someone while doing your homework together can be productive. But the challenge then becomes not taking a detour on social media, YouTube or Netflix.

What can you to help your teen stay on task? These smart steps can help you help your teen get the job done.

Delegate the device policing

Lots of parental control apps are available that limit screen time so teens can get their homework done distraction free. For example, “We installed the OurPact app on our teens’ phones because it will shut down access to social media and apps during homework time,” says Amy Carney, mom to 15-year old triplet sons Kade, Aidan and Cole, a 14-year old daughter, Morgan, and a 10-year old son, Phoenix. “We don’t always have the schedule turned on, but we’ll do so if we see our teens trying to juggle homework and socializing online,” Carney says.          

“There are times when parents need to take charge,” Dr. Gold says. But an even better idea for the long haul is to do just the opposite and avoid being the middleman. 

“One of the biggest challenges in parenting today is helping teens to self-regulate. The truth is, teens are growing up in a world where they’re going to have to deal with the distraction of technology. They have to learn how to modulate it,” Dr. Gold says. When using technology blocking apps, such as OurPact, Dr. Gold recommends talking to your teen about the myth of multitasking and suggesting that he learn how to use these apps himself to block specific distracting sites, such as YouTube and SnapChat for certain amounts of time during homework sessions.

Create some distance

In lieu of technology-blocking apps, teach your teen to get into the habit of putting his phone in another room while he’s doing his homework. He doesn’t need to use his phone to get his homework done. Distancing himself from his phone creates a physical barrier that minimizes tech temptation to check Instagram and helps teens move away from multitasking. “Often teens will say, ‘Fine. I’ll just finish this before I go and check my phone,’” Dr. Gold says. Keep your distance, too. “Don’t say your teen isn’t allowed to check his phone,” Dr. Gold says. Let him, if he wants to.

Take device breaks

While your teen’s phone is in another room or a technology blocking app is on, encourage her to set a timer. When the timer goes off after 20, 30 or 45 minutes of homework, she can take a 10-minute SnapChat or Instagram break. “Studying for small amounts of time but with more focus and taking breaks maximizes efficiency and helps teach time management,” Dr. Gold says. A device break can also boost motivation when it becomes a reward for accomplishing specific tasks.

Whatever the method, it’s an important life skill for teens to learn how to manage the distractions that technology can present. As most of us grownups know, this isn’t exclusively a teen problem, but the teenage years are a great time to build good tech habits.