News - August 16, 2012

Online and off-topic

The internet is everywhere these days and everyone is always online. It can be an aid to study but it can also be a major source of distraction. 'Facebook is the biggest distraction.'

Student: I don't let myself get distracted by my studies! Facebook: Good for you!
'If I lose concentration while I am studying, I usually look at the news online. I check Facebook to see if there's anything new and I chat with my friends. When I start working again, I listen to music to motivate myself', says Mia Schoeber, third year International Development Studies, who is working on her laptop in a quiet corner of the Forum. 'That sort of distraction doesn't help you study of course, as everything takes twice as long.' And is she a typical student in this? Mia smiles shyly: 'Yes, everyone is like that nowadays.'
The rise of the internet in student life seems unstoppable. Data from the Dutch statistics bureau CBS show that 75 percent of young people between 15 and 25 years old are constantly online via a smartphone. The lobbying bureau SPOT has concluded that young people between the ages of 20 and 34 spend an average of 2 hours per day of their free time online, almost all of it on email and social media.
According to American writer Nicholas Carr, being online incessantly wherever you go is harmful. In The Shallows he warns that the web distracts us and affects our ability to concentrate. Intensive use changes the connections in our brains so that even offline we are only able to focus for shorter periods and our thinking is more superficial. Because not much research has been done yet on the long-term impact of the internet, Carr bases his claims largely on laboratory experiments. These suggest, for example, that readers of web pages absorb information less effectively than readers of hard copy.  Multitasking appears to be a bad habit too: when we do several things at once we do them less effectively. And according to SPOT's statistics, young people between the ages of 20 and 29 spend more than 70 percent of their time online multitasking. 
Worthwhile things
Wageningen students confirm that the internet is a big distraction from their studies. 'Facebook is the biggest distraction', says Sander Onsman, a fifth-year student of Biology who is playing on his smartphone at a desk in the Forum. 'Just walk around the Forum library and you'll see Facebook open everywhere you look.' Katrui Veldhuizen, Master's students of Environmental Biology, regularly drifts away from her studies to 'other worthwhile things'. 'If I really want to get down to work I have to switch off the internet, but as long as the pressure is not that great, it is a distraction.' When Sander is under big pressure to study he closes his three inboxes, but he can't stay away from them completely. 'I still look on my phone: I just have to press a button and the screen lights up and I can see whether I've got mail.'
But for many students the lure of the internet seems to be too strong, especially the possibility of being constantly in touch with each other. They enjoy snuffling around each other's Facebook pages, for instance, or they can't wait to read that all-important email from their thesis supervisor. 'I think the distraction can be positive', says Sander in defense of his compulsive habit of checking his emails. 'You relax for a moment and afterwards you can concentrate on your work again.' But he does not sound too convinced himself.
The effects of excessive internet use can go beyond the sheer waste of time. For some students it has more serious consequences. Study advisor Martine Nijboer: 'I would estimate that about 80 percent of all concentration problems can be put down to the social media, especially Facebook.' This does not mean that the social media are always the root cause. Being easily distracted can be a symptom of more fundamental problems. Nieboer: 'The subject is too difficult or you don't like your degree programme.' Her colleague Alet Leemans confirms that internet use can become a long-term problem: 'Of the students with concentration problems, more than half the cases are related to being distracted by the internet.' Leemans thinks many students have an unrealistic idea of their own studying behavior and they overestimate the number of hours they work. But they do not manage to change their behavior. Leemans: 'They are too easily distracted by Facebook and all the messages that keep on popping up. They do not dare shut themselves off from all that, because what if you miss something?' 
Information literacy
Fervent tweeter and associate professor of Health Communication Reint-Jan Renes is not at all surprised that students click on social media incessantly. 'We really love social contact and that is not a need we can resist all the time. Of course it is more rational to shut everything down while you study, but in practice it is another matter. That is just the way we are.' Renes likes to check his phone while he is reading or writing too. So he is less interested in the prophets of doom who labour the detrimental influence of new media, and more interested in the opportunities they provide. Renes: 'The truth is indeed that your attention becomes more diffuse, but in the end we become more skillful at integrating information and forging links. You lose some things and win others.'
The other interviewees acknowledge that they get a lot out of the web, particularly the slightly older group of researchers. They remember when they had to write to foreign researchers requesting copies of their publications. And everyone appreciates the enormous amount of up-to-date information that is available online. 'I have noticed that inquisitive students bring in information that has just come out', says Ljiljana Rodic-Wiersma, a researcher at Environmental Technology. 'That adds depth to discussions and keeps the teachers on their toes.' How much students benefit from this information varies widely, however. 'I have noticed that there are big differences in levels of information literacy', says Rodic-Wiersma. 'Some of them could give a course on it, while others have no idea what to do with the information.'
The internet has become so much a part of our daily lives in recent years that we are almost constantly 'online'. Students benefit from masses of information that they can access instantly. But the endless possibilities of the internet still call when they need to concentrate. So it seems like a good idea to ask yourself occasionally whether you really need to be online right now. It might pay off when the time comes to find out your grades - on the internet of course.