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Notification Nightmare: Digital Distractions Haunting Today's Students

Updated: Dec 7, 2023

By Suzannah Young

Photo Credit to Pexels

We’ve all been there. You’re scrolling through your phone at 3 a.m. on a Friday night when suddenly, you get an email from your professor telling you they have graded an exam or reminding you of an assignment due Sunday night.

Or it’s Wednesday at 10 a.m. and you’re in class when you get a text from your friend, trying to figure out plans for Friday night.

What do you do? How soon does your English professor need a response about the upcoming assignment? Should you reply within the next five minutes, 24 hours, or just wait until Monday?

And what about your friend? Do you tune in and out of the lecture for the next 10 minutes to go back and forth with them about which bar will have the best music, or do you wait until after class to start the thread?

While it may seem that the ability to communicate with friends and professors from anywhere at any time is a modern luxury, the undeniable fact is that it is also a modern burden.

Photo Credit to Pexels

In fact, notifications received from a phone, tablet, or laptop have been found to shut off the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that regulates higher order cognitive functions and problem solving. When this rational part of your brain shuts down, the emotional part—the amygdala—kicks in, prompting panic and distress.

According to Dr. Kristy Goodwin, author of “Raising Your Child in a Digital World,” the physical and mental effects of notifications stem from their ability to “trigger anxiety and our stress response, as they send our brain into overdrive and hypervigilance.”

Notifications and alerts do not only stimulate the visual sense. Through sounds and vibrations, the auditory and tactile senses are also triggered. Thus, notifications set off our fight or flight response.

Still, some may say that they do not feel anxious when receiving messages. This is because our brains cannot tell the difference between real threats and perceived threats--environmental stimuli that your brain falsely interprets to be a threat.

Photo Credit to Pexels

In other words, while you might know that Instagram notifications are not dangerous, your brain does not.

Another major problem with notifications is the gratification they bring you. Once you open the text from your friend or the email about the big grade, your brain receives a dopamine hit, feeling a sense of reward. This satisfactory feeling is dangerous because you end up in an addictive cycle of continuously checking your phone, anticipating the rush from the ‘ping!’

This makes creating boundaries between work and personal life more important and more difficult.

Freshman international relations major Maya Beydoun is beginning to set these boundaries while she is in class.

Even though her notifications for all social media accounts are turned off, she still receives vibrating notifications from iMessage and phone calls through her Apple Watch.

“When I get a message [during class], I always see it right away from my watch,” Beydoun said. “If it’s something important that I have to answer right away, I’ll use my watch, otherwise, I’ll wait about 15 minutes to respond through my phone.”

On the other hand, freshman biology major Mariana Meyers admits that she has her Snapchat and Instagram notifications turned on. However, Meyers keeps her phone facedown on her desk while in class, checking only occasionally.

Photo Credit to Pexels

While balancing work and play has always been a struggle, the saturation of modern technology and the ability to connect across vast distances has enhanced the problem.

Dr. Pawena Sirimangkala, associate professor of communication, compared the differences in distractions during her college years in the 80s with how she sees her students utilizing technology today.

“We didn’t have the phones, but we had different distractions—sex, drugs, alcohol— these were constant factors failing us in school,” Sirimangkala admits.

While these “distractions” remain prevalent obstacles in college culture today, students today also have the added distraction of a technological “nudge” that can connect them to the entire world in a matter of minutes. This poses a problem when it comes to dedicating undivided attention to homework or other personal obligations.

Both Beydoun and Meyers agree that if a notification comes up on their phone while they are studying outside of class, they almost always end up opening it immediately and often remain on their phone even after they have checked the alert.

With the world of technology lurking around everyone corner, it is important that students take measures to manage the stress from notifications and make their work time more productive and focused.

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