To Tweet or Not to Tweet: Combatting Instant Gratification Tendencies In A Technological Society

Silicon Valley
Silicon Valley

The Internet is a double-edged sword. It allows us to communicate instantly and seamlessly with one another, but it has begun to inhibit our ability to speak to each other in person. It gives us the ability to search through millions of articles on as many topics at any time, but it acts as a constant distraction. Trade-offs are expected when new technology is incorporated into society, and these trade-offs are taking their toll on the millennial generation. Some studies claim that millennials are literally “addicted” to technology, but waning them off of it could have serious negative social and educational consequences, as both social interaction and education have begun to rely so heavily on Internet and new technology. It has been shown in multiple studies that  millennials are losing their ability to focus on one task at a time without checking their mobile phones or social media outlets—they are living in an age of distraction. Whether the Internet’s benefits outweigh its consequences is a worthy debate, but the fact of the matter is that regardless, the Internet is now a permanent fixture in society, and we are still learning to function in offline environments in an age of Internet omnipotence. Society, particularly among the millennial generation, must learn to walk the line between utilizing technology in everyday life and being overwhelmed by a technological addiction.

While technological distractions are certainly troubling, there is another troubling side effect in this instant gratification culture that manifests itself in education, specifically in writing. Computers have certainly increased efficiency for student writing, as typing allows students to write more in a shorter period of time, but it also encourages dangerous writing practices. Students are electing to “binge write” ever more frequently, sitting at their computers and writing complex essays in a single evening. This sort of practice can certainly lead to inferior and superficial writing, but its greater impact comes from how it affects the overall education of the student. When a student chooses to complete an essay in a binge writing session they are not demonstrating the level of thought and reflection necessary to craft well-developed and complete arguments in their writing. This byproduct of our ever more demanding instant gratification culture, if allowed to continue, can begin to threaten the integrity of academic writing. So how can we best combat these problems?

An answer may be in the ancient practice of meditation. Meditation is in many ways a lost art in contemporary society, but those who practice it regularly are often quite happy with its effects, claiming that it has reduced their depression and stress levels and helped them get to know their true selves. This behavior isn’t particularly common of millennials, but with the ever-increasing domination of technology on their lives, it’s time that it should be.

The earliest version of the Internet as we know it today was a concept created by Manhattan Project scientist Vannevar Bush. Bush envisioned a sort of library with quick access to the scores information, new and inherited, that anyone could utilize. This first vision of the Internet is a far cry from the reality of the current web, however, and the Internet can be more of a deterrent than an aid to academic performance. It is a common claim that technology acts as a restraint on the academic habits of today’s youth, and the evidence that substantiates these worries is concerning. According to a 2013 California State University study, children and adolescents can only focus on homework for six minutes at a time on average before switching to another task, and students with access to technology are more likely to get off task than those without. These results are less than encouraging, and with many educational institutions relying increasingly more on technology in the classroom, this trend may lead to overall decreasing academic performance.

In contrast with the distractible nature of the millennials is another trend that has an equally negative effect on focus and quality of work. Many standardized tests, including the college preparatory SAT, require students to write cohesive essays in incredibly short periods of time. When preparing for these exams, students practice writing as much information as possible without taking the time to plan out their arguments, as the time allotted to compose their argument does not allow much time to compose their thoughts. According to studies by Les Perelman, a writing professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there is an incredibly high correlation between word count and score for the writing component of the SAT.  These results are troubling because they imply that a student who chooses to use five minutes of their allotted twenty five minutes to gather their thoughts will be at a disadvantage to those who begin writing without a plan, solely because they don’t have the opportunity to get as many words on the page.

Being rewarded for quick and wordy writing fosters some very dangerous habits in students. The emphasis on writing as much and as quickly as possible means that students teach themselves how to write this way, and often become the most comfortable doing so. It is not a rare college experience to stay up all night writing a paper that’s due the next day, a behavior that has become accepted as the norm in many universities: sources like USA Today have written multiple articles advising students how to get through and recover from all-nighters. Though most college students claim to know the dangers of all-nighters, it doesn’t stop them from staying up all night to finish their assignments. According to one study out of the University of Texas at Austin, most college students stay up all night doing homework at least twice per month. This leads to papers that are poorly thought out and executed mediocrely at best, but this style of writing and the lackluster essays it produces are becoming ever more prevalent.

Adding social media and other technological distractions to the cycle of all-night working yields a dangerous cocktail of work that was created in a short amount of time without the student’s full attention. This sort of work often does not show the quality of output a student can create, but rather produces an essay that is just satisfactory enough to earn an average grade, a situation many college students are content with. This sort of attitude may also be partially responsible for increasing college dropout rates.

Changing this culture would be quite a challenge. With popular websites like Total Frat Move and Buzzfeed trivializing the academic factors of the college experience to highlight the social aspects, it shouldn’t be surprising that more students aren’t giving their classes the attention they need. Emphasis is shifting on what is important, and decreasing graduation rates show classes are becoming more of an afterthought for many students.

College culture has been long known as a mixture of partying and stress, but with websites that so many college students frequent advocating academically disadvantageous behavior the culture is growing ever more toxic. The websites that students distract themselves with advocate distracting activities, and then these students contact their peers through text messaging or social media like Facebook and Twitter and encourage them to participate in the same distractions. This creates a culture of enabling, and it has become clear that college students are on the verge of a crisis, and they must find a way to learn how to remain on their tasks.

The appeal of this culture is clear, especially in a society that feeds on instant gratification. Millennials do things quickly because they want quick results, and with a culture centered on mantras like YOLO, there is a strong emphasis to live in the moment and worry about the consequences later, a mindset that often leads to irresponsible decisions and activities that don’t provide instant gratification, like working on schoolwork, end up falling to the wayside.

Jon Kabat-Zinn may have an answer to these troubles. In his work Wherever You Go, There You Are, he speaks of mindfulness meditation and the practice of “non-doing”. In a culture that encourages living in the moment, Kabat-Zinn takes the idea in a different direction, writing “In every moment, we find ourselves at the crossroad of here and now. But when the cloud of forgetfulness over where we are now sets in, in that very moment we get lost…we momentarily lose touch with ourselves and the full extent of our possibilities.” In a culture bent on distraction, living in the moment becomes next to impossible.

Kabat-Zinn is not the only one who believes that we are losing our ability to stop and reflect, and this trend is not completely novel. Josef Pieper, a German philosopher and contemporary of Memex conceptualizer Vannevar Bush, also advocated for “reclaim[ing] the time for reflection and contemplation.” Pieper believed that total work was taking over a society, a state of devoting ever more time to our obligations and responsibilities and not spending enough time on ourselves. Now, that problem has morphed into people spending time on themselves by finding ways to distract themselves from their obligations through fleeting entertainment, resulting in completing their tasks haphazardly and without vigor. Vannevar Bush believed that the Memex would help solve the crisis of information overload, but our Memex, the Internet, has greatly worsened it. Pieper encouraged more leisure time to solve the problem, and given that our Memex has exacerbated our problem, not solved it, the time may be ripe to revisit Pieper’s philosophy. But our take on Pieper’s musings does not favor finding passing distractions to keep us from doing our work—rather, to find time to reflect and center ourselves before engaging.

Pieper believed time devoted to leisure could act as a catalyst to more fruitful academic work, but that leisure must be a certain kind of relaxation, a period of rest that fosters productivity. When Kabat-Zinn writes of mindfulness meditation and a state of “non-doing”, and in this state one simply dwells on stillness. Kabat-Zinn suggests lying down, but any position that encourages the meditator to relax and focus on calmness can be effective. “Attend to the moment-to-moment unfolding of the present, adding nothing, subtracting nothing, affirming that ‘This Is It.’”

This meditation method has proven to have an effect in the classroom. A 1981 California State study found that students who participated in a meditation program over a nine week period performed significantly better in academic pursuits than those who did not participate in meditation. This study is not unique: similar studies have been done to assist minority and at risk students finding similar results.

Upon learning about the positive consequences of meditation, I began to implement meditation into my own academic routine, meditating for five minutes before I began working on assignments like essays. Thus far I have found that evaluations of my work have shown an increase in the quality of my output, but more than that I find that I am happier with the content I produce. Taking a brief period to gather thoughts and simply focus on non-doing facilitates a focused, undistracted state of mind going into an academic project that keeps the mind from wandering to one of many technological or non-technological interruptions.

The evidence supporting meditation as a way of fostering better academic performance is staggering, but there is very little being done to implement this practice to try to assist students in their academic pursuits. If meditation was incorporated into the daily lives of more students, not only may their academic performance improve but they may also find that they are less likely to need to constantly check their devices. Discussion around technology addiction regarding the millennial generation is showing that reliance on technology is an ever-growing problem, and meditation may be one way to remedy this. Five-minute meditation sessions where students are not allowed to interact with technology may be incredibly difficult for some in the beginning, but this could be an important step for students to wean themselves off of technology, even for only minutes at a time. In today’s digital society it is impractical to expect students to cut themselves off from technology completely “cold turkey”, and would likely have negative social implications for those students. However, teaching them to distance themselves from technology for minutes at a time may cut down on anxiety and help millennials to distance themselves from their technology, fostering more productive learning environments.

One way to introduce meditation into the lives of students is to have them participate in the classroom: to begin every class with a brief meditation in hopes of fostering a more productive learning environment. Individual teachers have begun to participate in these sorts of activities, but in most schools meditation is, at best, a rare find. Lisa Sansom, a third grade teacher at Our Lady of Lourdes Primary School in Tarro, Australia, has been teaching her students meditation since 2006. She finds that it calms her students, and according to one student “it helps us to be more focused on work.”

So why aren’t these meditative practices being incorporated into more classrooms? For some, it’s an issue of religion. In 2008 Madison, Wisconsin participated in a national experiment that studied the effects of meditation in the classroom. However the experiment was met with controversy because of the seeming religious undertones of meditation, a common practice among Eastern religions. Reverend Thomas Keating spoke in favor of meditation, claiming “it’s not a religious issue…silence is not denominational, and it can be practiced in a methodical way.”

Other than the religious argument, support for the project in Madison seemed fairly widespread. John Dunne, father of a five-year-old daughter when the project was launched, meditation meant teaching loving-kindness—focusing on positive thoughts. For older children, he supports focusing on one object for an extended period of time as a way to bring them to focus. Meditation comes in many forms, and the goal would be for each student to find the form that was most effective for them, as meditation is a very personal practice.

After the initial article on the Wisconsin study, very little follow-up material was available on the results of the experiment. Perhaps this is because technology became a bigger problem in classrooms and the idea of meditation went to the wayside, or perhaps the program was simply not popular with students. Regardless, it is high time to begin this program anew, and not just because it fosters a creative environment, but because meditation may begin to help millennials with their worsening addiction to technology.

If schools are not comfortable implementing meditation practices in the classroom, they can still encourage students to participate in their own time. Many young people are not familiar with the benefits of meditation, end many are not even sure how to engage in meditation. There is a natural place in most primary and middle school curricula to incorporate education about meditation—many schools have units in social studies classes teaching about foreign culture, including Eastern cultures, where a discussion and lesson on meditation could fit into the curriculum seamlessly. By familiarizing students with these concepts, students would at least have the knowledge to make the choice to meditate at home if they were so inclined, and would hopefully find that their academic performance improves.

Along with lessons on meditation should come further lessons on time management. Though many schools already offer brief overviews of strategies to manage time efficiently, the evidence of increasing college all-nighters indicate that these lessons are not always having strong effects. It is important to teach students that focus doesn’t last forever, and that it is more productive to meditate, work while focused, and then step away from the assignment than try to push through when the student is distracted. This also means that students will have to begin assignments earlier, another healthy academic practice.

Practicing meditation offers an alternative to using technology in the classroom for students, rather than simply acting as a punishment. Some teachers have started to demand cell phones be turned in at the beginning of class so that students are not tempted to look at them during lessons, but in many cases this just causes greater anxiety for the students. By offering an alternative activity, a positive response, instead of demanding the students give something up, a negative response, students may respond better and feel more positively about their classes while still getting themselves away from technology, at least temporarily.

This is not to say that meditation is the only way to fix the problem, nor will it be able to remedy the problem completely. There may still be some need for negative reinforcement regarding digital distractions in the classroom, but certainly not all of the feedback needs to be negative. By replacing some of the negative feedback with a positive activity students will feel less pressured and less like they are being disciplined and more like they are being given new opportunities to take a break from their work.

In our technology centered society it is becoming increasingly difficult to slow down and attempt to simply be in the moment. Even young people who attempt to live in the moment often do so recklessly, without capturing the possibility of the moment they live in. With so much focus on the digital and what we can only experience through technology, being aware of what is occurring in our own lives can be thrown to the wayside, as can focus on academic pursuits. By incorporating meditation into academic routines we will see a rise in overall performance, but more than that we will hopefully see a society less reliant on technology, a society more focused on what is happening right in front of them: a return to truly living in the moment. TC mark

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