Distractions. We’re surrounded by them in today’s world. Children, students, adults: no one is immune to the constant bombardment and the temptation to try to go in many different directions at once. We check our phones and social media, we send and receive texts, and we multitask. (How else would we ever get anything done?) Some of us thrive on the energy — or at least we think we do. Others lament the intrusion and wish we could shut the world out on occasion. But whether we like it or not, we live in a distracted society.
What’s the problem?
The distractions we live with day to day can separate us from the present moment. As we experience these distractions more and more, we lose, or at least weaken, our ability to be present now, where we find ourselves. And although we all experience this separation, it can be even more of a problem for our college students.
For instance, several studies have indicated some alarming statistics about students and their phones. One study suggests that students check their phones on average every 11 minutes. Another found that students check their phones 11.43 times each day while they are in class. Still another study found that 40% of students said they would be incapable of going more than 10 minutes without checking their phones. So clearly students are attached to their phones, to their social media, to their texts. And in reality, so are many of their parents.
Of course, it’s not just phones preventing students from being present to their experience in college. Students encounter many barriers to being here, now.
- Through texts, e-mail, social media, Facetime, Skype and phone conversations, college students are better able today to stay in close, sometimes daily, contact with their friends from home. This is a good thing — unless it prevents students from making connections and new friends where they are now.
- Classroom use of technology distracts students from what is happening in the classroom. In one study at West Point, students in a class that banned devices received better grades than students in another section of the same course that allowed laptops and tablets.
- Students who leave campus often, perhaps to go home on weekends or to find all of their entertainment off campus, distance themselves from the opportunities and experiences of campus life and their fellow students.
- Students who are constantly thinking about transferring to a different institution, thinking about graduate school, or thinking about future career are spending their mental energy in ”another place” rather than where they are. (Of course, students should think about their future goals, but not allow it to overshadow the present.)
- Students who are bombarded with distractions may not take time, or be able, to tune in to their own emotions and feelings. Without practicing this emotional intelligence, students are more prone to stress and anxiety.
So students are distracted, and distraction can have negative effects. What can they, and their parents, do?
Being present —here and now
Thinking about the past — or the future; focusing on what’s next — grad school, transfer, career; communicating excessively with friends at home rather than those at school; multitasking constantly; checking social media constantly; spending a majority of time off campus; all of these take students out of the moment to somewhere else.
Students, and all of us, benefit if we can focus on the present moment and be mindful. Mindfulness is gaining exposure as an activity with tremendous benefits. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, psychologist and mindfulness expert, this means ”paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” In other words, simply paying attention and focusing on now, having a calm awareness of the present moment.
Mindfulness can involve meditation or yoga, perhaps using an online program such as Headspace, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be a formal practice. Students can put on some calm music, breathe deeply, visualize positive things, write in a journal, or practice gratitude by naming 3 things they are thankful for. Students might simply try to unplug for a little while each day.
Paying attention to the present moment, however students try to do that, can have surprising benefits. Students may do better in their classes, discover better reading comprehension and memory. In one study, students who meditated for 10 minutes prior to a lecture did better on a quiz immediately afterward than students who did not meditate.
Students may have more focus and mental clarity, feel more relaxed and have a better sense of general well-being. Students may find it easier to balance their many responsibilities, control their emotions, sleep better, feel less stress, and be in a better mood.
According to Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance; mindfulness can also increase students’ grit, or ability to work at a goal and succeed over the long term in spite of obstacles.
At a time when so many students seem to be suffering from increased anxiety and stress, this is a powerful list of benefits!
Owning the motivation
But students need to want to be more mindful and believe that it will make a difference. Parents can provide a little information and perhaps make a suggestion, but then students need to take it from there. Perhaps your student will give it a try, or perhaps not. But it’s worth offering the suggestion — especially if your student seems especially distracted, anxious, or stressed.
And . . . parents can model mindfulness as well. Next time you’re feeling distracted or overwhelmed, stop and breathe, focus, take a walk with no agenda — and no podcast playing in your ears. Unplug, focus, slow down, and do only one thing at a time. Students are not the only ones who can benefit from learning to be present. Here. Now.