How Intrinsic Motivation Helps Students Manage Digital Distractions

When I first started working with middle school and high school students on organization and time-management nearly two decades ago, most students would tell me their biggest distractions were food, pets, siblings and sleep. About a decade ago, I began to notice a shift, and now the vast majority of students admit that it’s technological distractions—texting, social media apps and online streaming—that often prevent them from completing work and being engaged in class.

Students today feel overwhelmed trying to juggle their academic, social and extracurricular experiences online and in real life, and educators play a role in providing support and structure to help students develop better habits to promote social and emotional wellness. According to the Pew Research Center, 72 percent of teenagers check their phones as soon as they get up (and so do 58 percent of their parents), and 45 percent of teenagers feel as though they are online on a nearly constant basis. Interestingly, and importantly, over half of U.S. teenagers feel as though they spend too much time on their cell phones.

It’s no secret that students today face the ultimate paradox—the same tools they need to use to complete their work can also provide their biggest distractions from completing work. In providing students with technology, we haven’t provided students with guidance around critical executive functioning skills. As schools have increased the use of technology in the classroom, teachers can quickly feel at a loss for how to help students navigate online distractions, especially as they may be facing similar challenges.

Over the past two years, I’ve traveled to more than forty cities visiting public, private, charter and independent schools around the United States, meeting with students, parents, educators and administrators. Initially, I was consulting with schools that were bringing technology into the classroom on ways to promote better executive functioning skills. More recently, my time has been spent helping schools think through effective curriculum and policies around social media and technology wellness.

Overwhelmingly, I’ve found students open to and interested in tools to help them effectively navigate distractions and promote their social and emotional well-being, and that teachers benefit enormously from professional development centered around technology use, executive functioning skills and intrinsic motivation. But how does that work? Here are a few tips.

Students can be intrinsically motivated to learn ways to manage and block distractions—when presented appropriately.

Research on intrinsic motivation focuses on the importance of autonomy, competency and relatedness in classroom and school culture. In my work, I find that students often become excited and motivated to develop better habits when the value of doing so is presented in a way that benefits their lives.

Last year I visited a middle school twice in the span of six months. Before my first visit, I provided the school with a survey to give to students. The results revealed that students wanted to spend more time with friends, with family members, on hobbies and other activities but didn’t feel they had enough time. During my first visit, I asked the students to be openly and honestly aware of their daily habits, and offered suggestions on how to be more intentional with their time—managing and blocking digital distractions, for example, so that they weren’t constantly switching from one task to another.

I presented it in a way that focused on their goals and habits, and enabled them to recognize whether their daily habits were in line with their goals about how and where they wanted to spend their time. And I provided them with several different constructive strategies that I encouraged them to try and see what worked best for them. In a way, I gamified the approach and made the students feel as though managing distractions and being focused was actually something that was fun and stress-relieving.

A few months later, I returned to the school and students were excited to share the different strategies they adopted since my first visit, including setting timers to focus on monotasking and using web blockers to prevent themselves from visiting distracting websites while completing work.

According to one Common Sense Media report, called Social Media, Social Life, 57 percent of students believe social media use often distracts them when they should be doing homework. In some ways, the first wave of digital citizenship education faltered by blocking distractions from school networks and telling students what to do, rather than effectively encouraging them to develop their own intrinsic motivation around making better choices online and in real life. Many school information technology professionals have admitted that the former approach tends to be ineffective since students have multiple workarounds, including personal hotspots when using mobile devices.

When working with students, I start from a place of compassion, empathy and understanding, rather than fear, anger and frustration. I recognize and admit how challenging it is for all of us to navigate this relatively new world of technology and its related distractions. Students are receptive to this approach. They become excited to try new ways to manage and block distractions as I encourage them to realize they have a choice in how they spend their time and that they are competent to make choices that promote their social and emotional well-being.

Research also suggests that setting high expectations and standards for students can act as a catalyst for improving student motivation, and that a sense of belonging and connectedness in school leads to improved academic self-efficacy and more positive learning experiences. Students step into these higher expectations when we provide them opportunities to reflect and develop a sense of belonging and worthiness within their school and greater community.

When students realize their time is valuable, they are excited to focus on finding ways to opt in to energizing experiences and opt out of draining ones.

At the same time, a troubling number of students feel as though they don’t have anyone to turn to if something doesn’t go as planned.

Before every school visit, I provide students with an anonymous survey asking about general habits around use. To me, the most concerning thing is the number of students who feel they don’t have a peer or adult they can turn to if something doesn’t go as planned online (or in real life). At many schools, 5 to 10 percent of students say they lack a supportive peer or adult, which is troubling. Even students who are not active on social media or online may find that a photo or video of them is shared inappropriately, or a post or message makes them feel uncomfortable. Having a network of people to turn to is key to social and emotional wellness.

I use the terms supporters and clarifiers to describe the individuals who ideally make up our supportive community. Supporters are peers who provide support and can help find resources. Clarifiers are generally adults who provide clarity—that person might be a parent, coach, family friend or school counselor. It is important for students to identify several supporters and clarifiers before any sort of crisis occurs, because in the middle of what feels like a crisis, it can be hard to think clearly. Having students identify three supporters (peers) and three clarifiers (adults) they could reach out to if something doesn’t go as planned is a useful classroom exercise that provides time and space for reflection.

It is important to realize that adults are struggling with technology and social media use just as much as kids—if not more.

It can be difficult to fathom how much technology has changed our lives in such a short amount of time, and administrators and educators need nonjudgmental support just as much as students do. As we try to navigate the changes that technology use brings, all while juggling classroom management and providing student support in a safe learning environment, it is easy to become overwhelmed. It’s okay not to always know the answer and to admit to students that you are trying to figure this all out as well.

Educators and teachers who step back and come from a place of curiosity, compassion and empathy (rather than fear, anger and frustration) are better poised to deal with issues related to technology and wellness. These educators create an environment in which we’re encouraging students to suggest potential solutions around organization, managing distractions and proactively identifying potential issues.

When schools develop an advisory board of influential and thoughtful students, parent advocates and teachers to work together to set and review technology and social media policies on a regular basis, we empower students to work collaboratively to find solutions that promote positive school culture and overall well-being. The result: student buy-in and a movement toward effective solutions that promote better online habits—for everyone.