IM distracted

Levine, L., Waite, B., & Bowman, L. (2007). Electronic Media Use, Reading, and Academic Distractibility in College Youth. CyberPsychology & Behavior 10(4). pp. 560-566.

While this article supports the popular notion that instant messaging interferes with academic tasks such as reading textbooks, the flawed design call the results into question. The authors equate statements such as, “I rarely do the assigned readings for my classes” with being distracted from academic tasks. In fact, failing to do the assigned readings could be attributed to character flaws, laziness, boredom, or a host of other non-IM related causes.

The authors report that a typical IM session lasts 75 minutes. Personal experience suggests this is exaggerated if the figure is taken to mean that 75 minutes of focused time is devoted to the average IM session. While users may indeed report that an IM service is running for 75 minutes per session, the surveys fail to probe the self-reported results to determine the number of messages, a more accurate  indicator of  potential IM attention disruption.

Selective reporting of results further demonstrates bias. For example, the authors report that distractibility was “significantly predicted by the amount of IMing.” However, they do not report that responding quickly to IMs, an obvious indicator of distractibility, was less of a predictor than listening to music. Similarly, they cite research that found television viewing increased attention problems; however, the authors own data shows television has less impact than music, and that playing video games decreases academic distractions.

The authors claim three possible explanations for IM’s interference with academic pursuits:

  • IM takes time away from studies
  • IM directly interferes with studies
  • IM changes students into superficial multitaskers

The authors endorse this third possibility by spending additional time exploring its plausibility by reference to other studies. However, even if the definition of academic distractibility were accurate, even if the design has been observational rather than anecdotal, and even if the results had been reported fully and fairly, additional explanations exist for the cause-effect relationship the authors falsely claim to have proven.

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