Tangled in an endless web of distractions

Colleges worry about always-plugged-in students

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / April 24, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE — It was supposed to be a quick diversion, Katie Inman told herself last week as she flipped open her laptop. She had two tests to study for, three problem sets due, a paper to revise. But within minutes, the MIT sophomore was drawn into the depths of the Internet, her work shunted aside.

“I had just closed Facebook, but then I reopened it. It’s horrible,’’ said Inman, a mechanical engineering major. “I would type a sentence for my paper, and then get back on Facebook.’’

Desperate for productivity, Inman did something many of her classmates at one of the most wired campuses would find unfathomable: She installed a program that blocks certain websites for up to 24 hours. No social networking. No e-mail. No aimless surfing.

While Inman took matters into her own hands, some MIT professors are urging college leaders across the country to free students from their tether to technology. Over the past decade, schools raced to connect students to the Internet — in dorms, classrooms, even under the old oak tree. But now, what once would have been considered heresy is an active point of discussion: pulling the virtual plug to encourage students to pay more attention in class and become more adept at real-life social networking.

“I have been a bit skeptical about the value of making an entire campus wireless,’’ said Lawrence Bacow, president of Tufts University and former chancellor of MIT, where he was a professor when it began wiring all classrooms in the mid-1990s. “It seems like everyone is always plugged in and always distracted.’’

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — home to the father of the World Wide Web and where the Internet is accessible even near the banks of the Charles River — students’ eyes obsessively wander, midconversation, down to laptops and cellphones, checking for missed updates from friends.

In class, professors complain about students trading stocks online, shopping for Hermès scarves, showing one another video clips on YouTube — leading some faculty to call for the unwiring of all lecture halls.

“Students are totally shameless about how they use their computers in class,’’ said David Jones, an MIT professor. “I fantasize about having a Wi-Fi jammer in my lecture halls to block access to distractions.’’

While MIT has yet to unwire a single lecture hall, some law schools, including the University of Chicago’s, have in recent years blocked wireless access in classrooms to keep students engaged in Socratic discussions instead of their classmates’ Groupon and eBay activities.

Harvard Law School classrooms remain wired, but Jonathan Zittrain, a professor and Internet law specialist who cofounded the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, has banned laptops and all mobile devices from his first year torts class since 2004.

“If you sit in the back of the room and see what’s going on, it’s so demoralizing,’’ Zittrain said. “It’s not just poker or Minesweeper, they’re shopping for shoes as we’re talking about some fascinating Supreme Court case.’’

But Zittrain said he would oppose a blanket university policy that blocks Web access from classrooms.

“If you break off the Internet, so what? They’ve got 3G on their phones and iPads,’’ he said. “Instead, come up with a rule and express it. And the students violate that rule at their peril.’’

Other colleges have maintained digital-free oases, despite competitive pressures forcing many schools to keep up in the technological arms race. At Tufts, spaces like the chapel remain Internet-free. And the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester organizes weeklong silent retreats to give students an opportunity to take a break from their iPhones and BlackBerrys. At Amherst College earlier this month, students were encouraged to disconnect from their technological devices for at least 15 minutes and meditate, sip afternoon tea, or take a hike.

This freedom from constant connection is what Sherry Turkle, a professor in MIT’s program in science, technology, and society, is promoting — along with her new book, “Alone Together’’ — as she travels the country encouraging colleges to pull back on Internet access.

“We’re very seduced by the little red light on our BlackBerrys, by the ping that tells us we’ve got mail,’’ Turkle said. “We’re vulnerable to that feeling of being wanted and being connected, but we need some time to be alone. Universities can strategically do some ‘unwiring’ as people look to create a space for themselves.’’

Two weeks ago, Jones was so fed up by his students’ lack of engagement in class discussions that he banned laptops from a graduate seminar on the history and anthropology of medicine and biology. At any given time, he said, three of his eight students buried their heads in their laptops instead of listening to their peers.

Since the ban, students are making eye contact and listening to each other more, Jones said.

Caterina Scaramelli, a doctoral student in Jones’s class, said she was guilty of multitasking during class because she has too much work to complete and not enough time. But she supports the idea of unwiring classrooms because “it’s more important to have people really participating in class.’’

“If we don’t have our laptops to retreat to, we feel more encouraged to talk to each other,’’ she said. “It’s frustrating when you put a lot of work into a class presentation, and you know your classmates are looking at their e-mails.’’

Jones said he is contemplating expanding the no-laptops policy to his lecture courses, a move opposed by many students. Students accuse the 40-year-old professor of being an “old fogey’’ when Jones tells them that they cannot possibly surf the Web and simultaneously listen to his lecture.

“I always wonder, ‘Why are they in class?’, because it’s clear they are not paying attention,’’ Jones said. “These are smart students, but they’re doing terribly in class because they think they can multitask but they can’t.’’

Indeed, a 2009 Stanford University study showed that students who were chronic media multitaskers were more easily distracted. Not only did it impede students’ concentration and learning, the effects linger, said Clifford Nass, a communication professor who embarked on the study after noticing freshmen would write papers in their dorm while simultaneously chatting with multiple friends on Facebook while also talking to someone in their room and surfing the Web.

“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty awesome. What do they know that I don’t know, and how can I be like that?’ ’’ Nass said. “It seemed amazingly efficient.’’

But, it turned out, multitaskers are not good at switching tasks or ignoring irrelevant information. They also don’t write as well and use simpler sentences, said Nass, author of “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop’’ and who has examined the writing samples of Stanford freshmen. Such behaviors have very real consequences for the wiring of the young brain.

“The scarier part is that even when they stop multitasking, their brains still don’t work properly,’’ Nass said. “Basically, they just don’t pay attention well. Limiting multitasking in the classroom is not sufficient. People have to limit it when they’re alone, too.’’

Even more worrisome than the negative effect on academics is the social consequence, said Nass, whose current research focuses on the emotional implications. Preliminary evidence shows that college students who multitask are less emotionally attuned to others, he said.

“There is not much emotional content on Facebook,’’ Nass said. “You essentially have a generation that is becoming socially autistic because they lack the practicing skills to navigate social and emotional life.’’

In the bustling student center at MIT, clusters of students sit on couches, peering at their computer screens instead of talking to each other. William Chin browsed photos of friends on Facebook from his computer while checking his phone for e-mails.

“I really should be working,’’ said Chin, an urban studies and planning major who would welcome a space on campus without Internet access. Some friends, Chin said, have temporarily deactivated their Facebook accounts during finals weeks. Others have begged friends to change Facebook passwords for them, so they won’t have access to their own accounts.

As for Inman, she has developed a new routine to keep from succumbing to the lure of the Internet. Around 9:30 each evening as she settles down to study, she sets the self-control application on her laptop for two hours. She is blocked from Facebook, Twitter, and other websites she does not want to be tempted by.

And there is nothing she can do to disable it once it is set.

“It drove me crazy the other day in class. I turned on the self-control app so I could focus, but I was getting really bored,’’ Inman said. “So I fell asleep.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at

Help for the hooked

Some apps that can help computer users limit the distractions of the Internet:

SelfControl: Blocks access on Mac computers to e-mail and websites such as Facebook or others of your choice for a set period of time of up to 24 hours. Once enabled, the app cannot be turned off. Katie Inman, an MIT student who recently downloaded this app to help her focus while studying, said some of her friends who use personal computers could use a similar app to block Internet distractions. “I don’t know of any Windows software that does the same thing,’’ she said, “but one of my friends was thinking of coding one.’’

Freedom: Disables all Internet access on a Mac for up to three hours, freeing users from the Web’s myriad distractions.

LeechBlock: Blocks certain sites, perpetually or during specific periods. Designed for Firefox Web browser.