Study finds e-mail a major distraction for students

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – One of the biggest threats to a student’s concentration may have to do with how often he or she checks their e-mail, according to a new report.

A survey of 1,100 people carried out by researchers at King’s College in London, commissioned by Hewlett Packard, found that distractions from a barrage of incoming e-mails and text messages exhausted subjects and lowered their productivity. The effects were particularly strong for the male participants.

Moreover, the study found that such regular interruptions had a more adverse impact on a person’s IQ than smoking marijuana. In a series of 80 clinical trials, researchers tracked the subjects’ IQs at different times of the day, yielding scores 10 points lower on average when trying to deal with work and e-mails simultaneously. Studies of marijuana users have shown a four-point decrease.

Among those polled, roughly half reported responding to e-mails within an hour of receiving them and one-in-five said they would excuse themselves from a conversation or business meeting to attend to an incoming message. Three out of 10 said doing so was a sign of industriousness.

Though the study was not age-specific, such interruptions are of particular concern for the college demographic, who tend to rely heavily on things such as e-mail, cell phones and instant messenger services. Anne Hillstrom, a professor of psychology at George Mason University who specializes in issues of attention and perception, said growing reliance on new communication technologies makes these types of distractions a much wider phenomenon than it once was.

“Before the advent of cell phones, the only you saw who had these kind of problems were people with high-powered jobs who had administrators coming into their offices and handing them messages throughout the day,” said Hillstrom. “Now everybody has those kinds of interruptions with things that are going on outside the environment they’re in.”

Hillstrom said people who sought new information in the past would have to go looking for it. Now, that same information is delivered to them directly on their computer screens, forcing people to multitask and making them less focused on their immediate surroundings.

That observation was echoed by students, who said they frequently catch themselves devoting more attention to such technologies than would be ideal. Several said they were captivated by the lure of incoming messages, regularly refreshing their e-mail servers and checking away messages to see if anyone has tried to contact them.

“For me, anything related to online communication is very distracting — e-mails and IM especially,” said Melissa Macs, a senior at American University, who said she checks her e-mail up to ten times a day. “I rely on them definitely more than I’d like to.”

Some said they regularly find themselves sidetracked by such technologies when trying to do schoolwork on their computers, leading to unintended procrastination.

“I’ll get an e-mail, and I’ll have to respond to it right away instead of working on my schoolwork,” said Justin Neidig, a sophomore at George Washington University. “It’s a minor distraction, but with the amount of e-mail I get, it becomes a ton of minor distractions.”

Though it would be difficult to reduce our reliance on electronic communication, the report suggested that people adopt more organized work habits to reduce the level of distraction. A number of students agreed, saying the key to avoiding the problem was a matter of self-discipline.

“It’s all just about managing your time,” said Allie Cowan, an AU junior. “It’s the same as any other type of communication, and the benefits definitely outweigh the negatives.”

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