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Adolescents are growing up in a digitally-immersive environment, relying on a range of digital technologies for both learning and leisure. The proliferation of digital technologies in students’ lives has resulted in many engaging in media multitasking in an attempt to accommodate the constant onslaught of information being thrust at them.

Whilst research has confirmed that general multitasking impairs students’ cognition and wellbeing, there’s some evidence to suggest that the relationship between ‘media multitasking’ and learning and wellbeing is a complex one, warranting a deeper understanding and more nuanced conversations. This paper will identify why attention management is a critical, yet challenging skill for today’s students to develop, the impact of media multitasking on students’ cognition, physical health and mental wellbeing and will conclude with suggested strategies to help students cultivate their focus in a distracted, digital world.

There is a need for a multifaceted approach that addresses both the metacognitive skills (thinking about one’s thinking) that support students’ general ability to focus and specific skills that target digital distractions:


1. Offline strategies

Metacognition strategies - Learn how the brain works most efficiently. Discover the circumstances when it’s easy to remain focused on a single task for a sustained period of time- what time of day was it, where was the smartphone, what was the duration of the study period? Understand the costs that result from frequent task switching- how does it feel when flipping between screens, tabs and tasks, does it take longer to complete tasks, is there a shift in accuracy or performance when engaging in MMT?

Study hours by chronotype - Students can optimise their focus by establishing study routines that are congruent with their chronotype (the biological clock that governs the body’s natural rhythms for sleep and focused tasks)[1]. It is during these focus hours that students need to minimise as many external, digital distractions as possible (see below for suggestions).

Physical activity - Physical exertion has been shown to boost cognitive control abilities[2] as it releases a range of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and noradrenaline which aid focus. One hour of moderate to vigorous exercise is recommended each day. Ensure students meet the daily movement requirements.

Sleep - Ensure adolescents are meeting the current sleep recommendations which is 8-10 hours per night for teens. Attaining good sleep quality is also important. Adolescents need 4-6 completed sleep cycles each night for optimum wellbeing and learning. Fitness trackers and general monitoring can foster healthy sleep behaviours. Develop healthy sleep hygiene, by switching off digital devices at least 60 minutes before falling asleep to ensure the body makes sufficient amounts of melatonin, the sleep hormone.

Greentime - Time in nature has been shown to have a restorative effect on attention and possibly mitigate some of the unfavourable psychological impacts of excessive time online[3]. Just 40 seconds in nature can reduce cortisol levels, which is a stress hormone, which makes it challenging to sustain focus as the brain cannot learn when cortisol is present.

Mindfulness and breathing techniques - Studies have shown that mindfulness and breathing techniques can aid in sustaining students’ attention[4] as it can activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest system) which will aid in focus. Implement mindfulness practices to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.

2. Digital strategies

Studies have revealed that disregarding irrelevant stimuli, such as notifications or alerts, is not a passive process, but is a cognitively-demanding task that expends critical mental resources. Hence, it’s critical that when students need to engage in focused work, such as homework or assignment completion, they need to do so with as few distractions as possible so as not to drain their mental resources. Below are some suggested strategies. It is not a prescriptive list, but more a menu of micro-habits from which students could select, based on their context.

Work in online focus sprints - learning online is mentally draining as there are multiple streams of information for the brain to process. Working in shorter intervals when studying or learning online may help students to foster better concentration.

Tech check-in breaks - studies have shown that offering students regular ‘technology breaks’, where they check their digital devices at regular, scheduled intervals whilst studying or learning, can be beneficial as it counteracts the anxiety that can result if phones are removed from students (a term colloquially referred to as ‘nomophobia’)[5]. These studies have suggested that self-reported anxiety may stem from fear of missing out (FOMO). Students can set up their study routine so that they have focused sprints and then a brief (no more than five to ten minute) tech check-in break.

Proximity - Students are encouraged to avoid having their ‘tech-temptations’ close by when studying or performing tasks that require focus as the mere presence of a smartphone can deteriorate focus and performance[6]. Equally important, students are encouraged to remove the apps and icons off their home screen or browser window to create more friction. Having intermediary steps to access possible distractions creates a potential barrier meaning they’re less likely to succumb to digital distractions when needing to engage in focused work.

Manage notifications - Students should disable non-essential notifications, establish VIP notification lists and bundle essential notifications at a time that will not divert their attention. On most phones users can now specify what notifications they’ll receive and when they’ll be delivered to their device, rather than them trickling in sporadically throughout the day. For example, students might elect to receive social media or YouTube notifications at a time when they’re likely to have completed any homework or study requirements.

Technological tools - Given that the adolescent brain is still developing regulation skills, families may want to consider using some prohibition tools that restrict their access to websites and apps, at nominated times of the day. Most smartphones now come with generic software that allows users to track and set limits on usage (‘Screentime’ for iOS users and ‘DIgital Wellbeing’ for Android users). There are similar commercial digital tools that can be installed on laptops, tablets and desktop computers to restrict students’ access during critical times of focus.

Activate ‘Do Not Disturb’ (DND) mode - Students should consider using DND any time they need to complete homework or study. DND can automatically be activated according to the user’s calendar commitments and they can customise their settings so automated replies are sent to people who attempt to contact them whilst this mode is activated, helping them to better cope with FOMO[7].

Turn screens to ‘greyscale’ - The colours of icons and apps have been carefully selected based on how the brain responds to specific colours. Students should consider turning their smartphone to greyscale at certain times of the day to reduce it’s psychological appeal.

Maximise laptop & desktop windows - Maximise windows and screens when working on desktops and laptops, to minimise the likelihood of task switching because of the luring icons that will tempt students to divert their attention.


There are a host of potential negative impacts associated with media multitasking for students, as this paper has identified. However, technology no doubt plays an integral role in adolescents’ lives for academic and personal reasons and therefore it’s imperative that students are equipped with the skills required to better manage digital distractions.



[1] Zerbini, G., & Merrow, M. (2017). Time to learn: How chronotype impacts education. PsyCh Journal, 6(4), 263-276.

[2] Gallotta, M. C., Guidetti, L., Franciosi, E., Emerenziani, G. P., Bonavolonta, V., & Baldari, C. (2012). Effects of varying type of exertion on children's attention capacity. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 44(3), 550-555.

Reigal, R. E., Moral-Campillo, L., Mier, R. J. R. D., Morillo-Baro, J. P., Morales-Sánchez, V., Pastrana, J. L., & Hernández-Mendo, A. (2020). Physical fitness level is related to attention and concentration in adolescents. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 110.

Vanhelst, J., Béghin, L., Duhamel, A., Manios, Y., Molnar, D., De Henauw, S., ... & Petraki, I. (2016). Physical activity is associated with attention capacity in adolescents. The Journal of Pediatrics, 168, 126-131.

[3] Oswald, T. K., Rumbold, A. R., Kedzior, S. G., & Moore, V. M. (2020). Psychological impacts of “screen time” and “green time” for children and adolescents: A systematic scoping review. PloS one, 15(9), e0237725.

[4] Weng, H. Y., Lewis-Peacock, J. A., Hecht, F. M., Uncapher, M. R., Ziegler, D. A., Farb, N. A., ... & Gazzaley, A. (2020). Focus on the breath: Brain decoding reveals internal states of attention during meditation. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 14, 336.Ziegler, D. A., Simon, A. J., Gallen, C. L., Skinner, S., Janowich, J. R., Volponi, J. J., ... & Gazzaley, A. (2019). Closed-loop digital meditation improves sustained attention in young adults. Nature human behaviour, 3(7), 746-757.

[5] Cheever, N. A., Rosen, L. D., Carrier, L. M., & Chavez, A. (2014). Out of sight is not out of mind: The impact of restricting wireless mobile device use on anxiety levels among low, moderate and high users. Computers in Human Behavior, 37, 290-297.

Clayton, R. B., Leshner, G., & Almond, A. (2015). The extended iSelf: The impact of iPhone separation on cognition, emotion, and physiology. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 20(2), 119-135.Przybylski, A. K., Murayama, K., DeHaan, C. R., & Gladwell, V. (2013). Motivational, emotional, and behavioral correlates of fear of missing out. Computers in human behavior, 29(4), 1841-1848.

Rosen, L. D., Carrier, L. M., & Cheever, N. A. (2013). Facebook and texting made me do it: Media-induced task-switching while studying. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(3), 948-958.

[6] Thornton, B., Faires, A., Robbins, M., & Rollins, E. (2014). The mere presence of a cell phone may be distracting: Implications for attention and task performance. Social Psychology, 45(6), 479.

[7] heever, N. A., Rosen, L. D., Carrier, L. M., & Chavez, A. (2014). Out of sight is not out of mind: The impact of restricting wireless mobile device use on anxiety levels among low, moderate and high users. Computers in Human Behavior, 37, 290-297.