Interrupting School Work and Sleep

From 2011 Cisco Connected World Technology Report as quoted in Backbone November/December 2011

In a given hour of school work, 90 percent of [Canadian university] students (84 per cent globally) reported being interrupted at least once by instant messaging, social media updates and phone calls.  Twenty-three (19 per cent globally) reported interruptions six times or more.

Most university work that is not tested with multiple guess exams requires a period of uninterrupted thought to understand what is being learned.  In math, it is the understanding of the problem, then the working out of the answer.  The more difficult the math, the longer that period can be.  In the humanities such as English or history, it can be reflecting on patterns until you see a bigger or smaller pattern e.g. a metaphor that emerges over the length of a novel or correlations of epidemics and war.

Interruptions of those periods of thought waste a student’s time and may lose her the concept she was just beginning to explore.

The Chronicle of Higher Education as reported in the Globe and Mail, Tuesday, November 22, 2011 tells of a study of 200 university students and their use of cellphones. The students were losing an average of 45 minutes of sleep each week due to the cells.  One student, woken by a text message, reported that she felt her friend might be upset if she didn’t answer.

I won’t go into what lack of sleep does to the ability to think, perhaps in another post, another day.  I am astonished by the power given to social media by intelligent people to disrupt the most important parst of their lives.

Perhaps I am making two assumptions: that their studies are more important to students than their social lives.  I am also assuming that these students are both intelligent and of an age to make mature decisions.  In fact neuroscientists seem generally in agreement that brain development goes on until age 25.  At least one has speculated that the frontal lobe which among other things, is responsible for making judgment calls, may continue developing for another five years.

This does make sense of the British tradition of giving children the key to the door on their twenty-first birthday and the medieval apprenticeship tradition that had children working and learning with a craftsman until the age of 21 .  That there are similar traditions in other countries and that versions of the apprenticeships are being revived in many countries is probably no surprise.

So what does this mean for parents of teenagers?  Remember who has the fully developed brain and whose brain is almost there but still in training.  Help your children create a habit of nothing interfering with study or sleep time.  You will have to model it yourself by letting people know that you won’t answer calls after a certain hour.  Letting the phone ring when you are working can be irritating at first, but the mantra “it can wait an hour (or whatever the time is until you take a break)” will help. After all, that’s what the answering machine and caller identity were created for: your convenience.  In my household we also have specific rings for certain people so we know who we must interrupt for and whose call can wait for an hour.

The computer is easier as most instant messaging can be turned off and ignored as can your email and messages from Facebook.  Recording TV programs for recreational time will make it easier to turn the television off when the members of the household are working.  I hope you take regular breaks and can use that time to return messages and calls.  How long a period you allow yourself to work without a proper break is a personal thing.  For most people it varies between 15 minutes and an hour and a half.  Fifteen minutes is for things you really don’t want to do (for more on this see Fly Lady) and most people can focus much longer on other things.  Things that really get my attention will keep me going for an hour and a half so I set a timer for a couple of mini stretch breaks in between (check out Time Out).

When you are doing what you expect your children to do, they can’t cry “no fair” and they will see this is what adults do.  Self discipline and using social media instead of letting it use them is the lesson you want to send with them to any post-secondary education.

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