HAYLEY TUBRETT – The notification bell rings and your phone lights up. You see that someone snapchatted, messaged, or sent you a follow request.
Is your immediate impulse to pick up your phone and check your notification? If so, then you’re not alone. For many university students, that reaction is all too familiar.
“It’s almost as if it’s what they need. A phone is like a soother,” says first-year Western engineering student, Nick Vandewetering.
No matter if you’re in first year or in fourth year, the distraction from assignments and studying is practically the same. As most students use social media through smartphone apps, students are carrying around the distraction in their own pockets.
“If something buzzes in my phone it almost feels like I have to go to that, I have to pause everything I’m doing,” Vandewetering says. “What I think is 30 seconds of looking at my phone can turn into 20 minutes of just scrolling through stuff.”
A recent survey studied 422 Canadian undergraduate university students and what social media platforms they use. Out of them, 79.4 per cent use Instagram and 58.8 per cent use it more than once a day.
Paris Bell, a fourth-year Western nursing student says she thinks Instagram is the platform that students get stuck on for the longest. “I feel like there’s a culture of the Instagram aesthetic, so everyone’s working to have the perfect Instagram theme,” she said. An Instagram theme could include using certain colour palettes in all your posts and having a specific niche or persona.
Her friend concurred. “When you guys came up to me, I was literally messaging my friend, ‘I need to put my phone away,’” said Erika Kazazian, a third-year media and the public interest student.
Kazazian said she works best when she leaves her phone at home, so the only thing she has to worry about is her schoolwork. But what about those who connect their phone to their laptop? They can still get text messages and Facebook notifications without their phones. That’s why Bell chose not to connect her devices. “Just don’t download it because if it’s not in your sight then you’re not going to use it,” she says.
Other students are hesitant to leave their phones at home in case of emergencies. So what other ways can students resist the pull of social media?
Some students I interviewed say they delete their social media apps altogether during exam time.
“I don’t have the willpower to do that, but I’m sure that’s really helpful,” Kazazian said.
But not all students agree on the matter.
Bell said that it’s important to have some mindless activity when taking study breaks. “Sometimes it’s nice to just go on your phone and see what other people are doing, or something to entertain you to get your mind off school for a couple of minutes,” she said.
Similarly, Vandewetering says deleting social media apps during exam time as unnecessary. “I see how it can be effective, but it’s a bit too extreme because you’re sort of reinforcing the idea that studying is super-duper strict – like you’ve got to get rid of everything in your life to study,” he says. Rather, he says the best way to approach studying is casually, instead of being so hard on yourself about staying off social media completely.
Grant Campbell, an associate professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies who has been teaching at Western University for 21 years, said students getting distracted from doing schoolwork is nothing new.
“We are seeing a change, but I think it’s a change that’s very consistent with problems that undergraduate students, particularly, have faced ever since the beginning which is that they are in a state of huge sensory overload,” he says. Sensory overload can include navigating a new school, he says, and learning time–management skills.
Campbell says it’s importance to remember that challenges students have with university are now just coming in digital form. “I think we have to strike a balance between addressing the new challenges, but also remembering that there’s a history behind all of this,” he says. “It didn’t just start with social media and we should recognize the continuities as well as the dislocations and the disruptions.”
If giving in to distractions is natural for most university students, perhaps they’re too hard on themselves for getting sidetracked by social media. But according to Anabel Quan-Haase, excessive social media use could hurt their learning.
Quan-Haase, who teaches information and media studies and sociology at Western University says that students can get drawn in for too long by social media. This could prioritize things online over schoolwork. “Sometimes to do really difficult work, you kind of need dead concentration, that focus,” she says. “That’s where I personally see some of the problems, in that deeper thinking – because there’s a lot of distraction they’re not often able to really elaborate a very complex set of ideas.”
Finding the balance between social media use and study time is something students must learn, she says.
“I think part of why students also come to university is to learn how to learn,” Quan-Haase says. She emphasizes the importance of time management and planning to get the best out of your university education. “Part of that is also figuring out how much time you have for each of those subcomponents; how much time do you have to socialize, how much time do you have for distractions. I would say we’re not being too hard on students because at the end of the day we’re teaching them to become independent learners.”
Learning when to get off Instagram takes a lot of willpower, Vandewetering says. But when you don’t have time to dawdle, he suggests turning your phone on airplane mode rather than deleting all your social media apps as some suggest. That way you still have your phone if you really need it, he says.
Kazazian says that when she’s at home studying, she’ll make food instead of scrolling through Instagram during study breaks. She also says, “hangout with your friends, go outside, do something other than being on your phone.”
When taking study breaks, a life away from the online world might feel refreshing.
“What I do hear from students is that they feel that social media should not substitute face-to-face interactions,” Quan-Haase says. “A lot of my students strongly believe that social media is good to enhance and supplement their friendships, but that it’s still important to go out and see friends and do things with friends.”
Bell would agree. She says it’s a good idea to make these face-to-face connections. “Reinforce the importance of having human connections and forming relationships outside of a phone,” she says.
These students’ advice could be helpful for what sometimes feels like the endless loophole that is social media. But Quan-Haase wants students to remember that we shouldn’t judge all social media use the same way.
“I think it’s also important to realize that it’s often not just fun, a waste of time and a distraction, but it’s important work for your social capital and your social networks that you will take with you as you move away from the university and move into the workforce.”