By Nara Schoenberg, Tribune Newspapers
7:43 PM EST, March 6, 2013
You don't want to get caught texting in Andrew Reiner's class.
At the beginning of each semester, Reiner, a lecturer at Towson University in Maryland, makes his cellphone policy crystal clear.
"If there's one thing that you will do that will really (tick) me off, that will completely send me through the roof, have your cellphone in your lap, under the desk, texting," Reiner says.
"That'll do it, right there."
Reiner, who isn't above yelling at the rare offender — "Please tell me you are not texting in class!" — flatly rejects the notion that college students can achieve peak classroom performance while communing with their smartphones, and a new wave of studies suggest that he's on the right track.
In the past five years researchers have published the results of five surveys and experiments that link texting and Facebooking with lower academic performance. In 2011, researchers at California State University reported that students who received or sent a high number of text messages during a video recorded lecture scored worse on a quiz than those who received or sent few or no text messages.
In a 2012 study, a researcher at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania surveyed 1,800 students about how often they Facebook, instant message, email, text, search online and talk on the phone in class. Among the results: 69 percent of students reported they had texted in class, and students who texted or used Facebook more frequently in class had lower overall semester GPAs. The author of that study, Reynol Junco, also co-wrote a study that linked texting and Facebooking during study time with lower GPAs.
At this point, there are still many open questions about media multitasking and academic performance, Junco says, among them, why does emailing in class appear to be harmless? But he says the take-away on in-class Facebooking and texting is clear.
"That absolutely is not a good idea, " says Junco, now a faculty associate at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.
"That I can be definitive about: That's not working. If you're going to search (online) during class, I don't have any data telling you to stop. If you're going to email during class, I don't have any data to tell you to stop. But do not text or Facebook during class. Do not text or Facebook while you're studying for your classes, because that's another area where this is definitely a negative."
Today's young adults are texting at unprecedented rates, with recent studies indicating that they send and receive about 200 texts a day and spend over six hours a day using technologies such as Facebook, text messaging, instant messaging, email and Internet search engines.
That's resulted in various levels of alarm, acceptance and even excitement among educators and researchers, some of whom say that Twitter news feeds and smartphone search features have educational potential that can be harnessed in the classroom. At Emerson College in Boston, junior Joey Polino says that professors' policies toward cellphones vary considerably.
"Some of them are OK with it, but others are very strict. They're always walking around the room — I would be afraid to take out my cellphone. I'd be afraid to even find out what they would do."
For researchers, texting in class falls into the broader category of multitasking, or doing two or more things at once, a practice that has often been linked to poor performance.
"You can multitask if the tasks you are doing are quite different," says Laura Levine, co-author of a review of the research on mobile media multitasking that appeared last year in the International Journal of Cyber Behavior.
"I can iron and watch television or cook dinner and listen to the radio. But if you're trying to do two intellectual tasks at the same time, that's simply not the way our brain operates. What happens for 99 percent of us is that instead of doing two things at once, we're switching, from this thing to that thing, from this thing to that thing, from this thing to that thing.
"And in the process, we're missing a lot and we're actually losing time, because every time we switch, we have to figure out what we're doing all over again."
Levine points to a study in which researchers sent instant messages to sailors lining up the Navy's Tomahawk missiles. The study had to be halted, Levine says, because sailors were so distracted that they were lining up the missiles the wrong way.
Junco's evidence against texting and Facebooking is correlational, meaning that his studies show that students who Facebook or text more in class or while studying do worse academically, but not that the texting or Facebooking itself is causing the problem. It's possible that, say, an easily distractible student is texting a lot and doing poorly in class, with the underlying cause of poor performance being the distractibility, not the texting. But Junco points to two other college studies in which researchers, not students, largely determined which students would do the most media multitasking in class.
In both the studies — the California State study and one published in 2012 in the journal Computers and Education — a form of media multitasking (texting or Facebooking) was linked to lower student performance.
"We're pretty sure it's a causal effect, given that research," Junco says. "Five studies does not a concrete finding make, but it's pretty close."
Other researchers are wondering about the long-term effects of media multitasking. Does it merely distract us in the short term, Levine asks, or does it eventually transform us into more distractible people?
"I feel like you're missing something by not going into things in depth," Levine says. "My (relative), she says that since she started with 'the Facebook' and 'the this' and 'the that,' she can't read a whole novel anymore — she just can't get through that much."
Reiner, the Towson lecturer, says he's interested in the new developments in multitasking research, but when it comes to classroom policy, he's already made up his mind.
"I don't see that there's any way we can multitask and still think critically and deeply the way some of our classrooms and jobs require," he says.
Advice for parents
The best way to influence your child's media use in college is to start years earlier, when he or she gets that first cellphone, says pediatrician Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children's Hospital.
Sit down with your child and have a real conversation about why she wants the cellphone and how she will use it, says Rich, who answers questions from the public about kids and media at Ask the Mediatrician (cmch.typepad.com/mediatrician). Emphasize what the rules will be and what the consequences will be if the phone is used improperly. Establish from the beginning that the cellphone will be handed over to you at night for charging; this will eliminate late-night texting, which has been linked with sleep loss.
"Another very powerful tool that kids take over in their adolescence is the automobile, and we don't just hand them the keys to the car," Rich says. "We get them drivers' education, and we sit in the front seat with them, our knuckles white, and we move them gradually into their operation of this very useful, very freeing, but also very powerful and potentially very dangerous tool."
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