Would you spend thousands of dollars – and maybe go deeply into debt – to attend college, then spend time playing with your smartphone or posting to Facebook while the instructor tries to deliver that expensive education?
Wouldn't be too bright, would it? Yet in college classrooms across the country, that appears to be what's going on. In fact, Barney McCoy, an associate professor of broadcasting at the University of Nebraska, conducted a study that finds the typical college student plays with his or her digital device an average of 11 times a day while in class.
A generation ago, the typical college professor wouldn't have tolerated it, arguing the behavior distracts the user, as well as other students. Today's students will give you no argument. In McCoy's study more than 80 percent admit that their use of smart phones, tablets and laptops can interfere with their learning. More than a fourth say their grades suffer as a result.
Yet they do it anyway. Is it that they just can't help themselves?
Not a problem?
"I don't think students necessarily think it's problematic," McCoy said. "They think it's part of their lives."
McCoy says he got interested in the topic shortly after launching his teaching career seven years ago, at just about the time smartphones were becoming more common. From the front of the classroom he would begin to notice a student here and there bowing over a digital device, reading or typing out a text.
The view from the back of the classroom, he says, was even more revealing. When a colleague came in to guest-teach a class, McCoy stood in the back of the room and was shocked by the lack of attention.
"They've got their laptops open, but they're not always taking notes," McCoy said. "Some might have two screens open -- Facebook and their notes."
Intrigued, McCoy decided to try to set out to measure the distraction scientifically. Just how common is it for students to tune out their professors in favor of staying in touch with friends or playing games?
During fall semester 2012, he interviewed 777 students at six universities in five states about their classroom use of digital devices for non-instructional purposes. Were students distracted by others' use of digital devices in the classroom, he wondered? Should colleges and universities do more to limit their classroom use?
Here's what he found: 35% of students played with their phones or tablets in class one to three times per day. Twenty-seven percent did it four to 10 times while 16% said they did it 11 to 30 times per day. Only eight percent said they never used digital devices in class for non-educational purposes.
What was drawing students' attention to their digital devices? Nearly 86% were texting, 68% were checking email and 66% were reading or posting on social networks. Eight percent admitted by were playing a game.
Why do students say they use their smartphones and other digital devices in class? Seventy percent said they want to “stay connected.” Fifty-five percent say they use them to fight boredom.
Yet 90% admit that when they use their phones in class they aren't paying attention. Eight percent have admitted missing instructions. More than a fourth said they have lost grade points because of their digital habits.
Stockholm smartphone syndrome
But don't expect students to put their gadgets away. Charlie Osborne, a writer at technology site ZDNet and a former teacher, is well-acquainted with the pattern. She calls it Stockholm smartphone syndrome.
“You don't fight against physical distractions anymore as a teacher; instead you combat the digital,” she writes. “With the wealth of information and entertainment available, mere mortals stand no chance unless we physically pry the smartphone out of a child's fingers and brace ourselves to endure the torrent of rage and anxiety afterwards.”
Indeed, students recoil at the notion of leaving their smartphones at home. In McCoy's survey, 91% of college students opposed a ban on digital devices in the classroom. McCoy says the issue isn't going away.
A 2012 study showed that two-thirds of students age 18-29 own a smartphone, which gives them mobile access to the Internet as well as texting and email capabilities. A 2013 study by Experian Marketing Services found that 18- to 24-year-olds send and receive an average of 3,853 text messages per month.
"It's become automatic behavior on the part of so many people -- they do it without even thinking about it," McCoy said.
McCoy is trying to reach a compromise with his students' digital obsession. He says he has limited the length of his lectures to give students periodic breaks so they can update Facebook or send a tweet. In a sly move he periodically asks students to use their phones for classroom purposes, asking them to look something up, for example. It doesn't work.
"I can guarantee you even when I do those things, it's still not going to keep students from having a text conversation," he said. "They'll multi-task while they're doing it."