WhatsApp is top classroom distraction

If I am not careful, my cellphone will wake me up in the wee hours with buzzes or pings to let me know that news organizations and family members on the other side of the world, in different time zones, are trying to get my attention. Is it too dramatic to say that “there is a global war” for our attention? I don’t think so.

Last year I did a little experiment with students in my Media Economics course. Each of them was asked to keep track of how many notifications or alerts they received on their phones or computers during a 45-minute lecture. The average was about 15 alerts, or one every three minutes. WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat were the chief distractions.

For a professor leading a class, these alerts could be considered competition.

(At left, Christian Zibreg tells how to remove distracting messages from the locked screen.)

The distraction industry

The competition for user attention has never been greater, and every news site and app is finding new ways to lure people away from whatever they are doing with ever-more-insistent alarms, buzzes, pings, beeps, lights, you name it.

This year, the Media Economics class is slightly larger, with 57 students, and the instructions were different: pick any 60-minute period and measure the number of alerts or notifications received — in essence, any signal that attempts to distract you from what you are doing.

On average, in 60 minutes students reported receiving 41.3 alerts (median 26).

The leading sources were:

  • WhatsApp, 25 in an hour (median 15)
  • Instagram, 5.8 (median 2)
  • Twitter, 1.8 (median 1)
  • Facebook, 2.2 (median 1.5)

Less than one-tenth of the surveys mentioned receiving alerts from Snapchat, YouTube, or Messenger. Only a handful mentioned LinkedIn, news sites, or email.

Where is the money

Obviously, many apps and websites will make more advertising revenue if they can get people to click on their alerts. If students have a smartphone sitting face up on their desk, even if it is in silent mode, the locked screen can light up every time an alert is received. Some students admitted that they glance at those alerts during class to make sure they aren’t missing something. (I allow them to use any device they want during class with the understanding that it be used only for classwork.)

But WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, does not run advertising, so how is it making money? CEO Mark Zuckerberg said last year that the service has 1.5 billion users sending 60 billion messages a day. The company has started charging businesses for tools to communicate with customers.

Forbes.com estimated that WhatsApp users could generate $5 billion annually in coming years from services such as a peer-to-peer money transfer service like that offered by China’s WeChat.

WhatsApp’s founder, who opposes running ads on the service, resigned from the board of Facebook in April over differences with how user phone numbers and other data is being used by the parent company to target ads from Facebook. (More about WhatsApp and revenue in this Investopedia article.)

No time to panic

For professors worried about losing control of their classes, it is no time to panic. Many students filter the alerts. Some student comments: — “My phone is most of the time on silence. This year I’ve tried activating the night mode, so that nobody bothers me, especially in class or when I’m rehearsing my music. There are also some other apps which I have not activated as they are so annoying with their notifications.” — “The thing with notifications is that it makes us feel important and relevant, it makes us feel something we aren´t. We get addicted to that feeling and keep coming back to it. I try not to get too attached but, as I said, is not easy. I try to do this by blocking notifications.” — “The alerts are a measure of our social status in the sense of seeing who thinks we are important enough to be included in a conversation.” — Said a student who blocks most alerts: “This is already what I am doing with news apps and Twitter because I don’t want to be disturbed by those apps. I keep alerts from Snapchat, Messenger, WhatsApp or my e-mails because I rather prefer being disturbed by apps who are ‘directly speaking to me’, who inform me about things I really care about, instead of being disturbed by some news apps which even if they ask me about what information I want to have alerts for.”

Fear of missing out

I get the impression that the students are not as plugged into the notifications as one might expect after viewing the numbers. Their motivation might be Fear Of Missing Out. If it’s not a big deal they don’t pay much attention to it. But they can be distracted for a second or two, and then they might consider whether a WhatsApp from a boyfriend or girlfriend is urgent enough to review during class. That is not one a professor can expect to win. The trick is, I think, finding ways to incorporate the use of devices in class to engage students. They already consume a lot of information on their smartphones.

A university colleague, José Luis Orihuela, has some observations (original is in Spanish) about how to view the use of smartphones in the classroom:

  • Don’t demonize it. It’s part of a student’s culture.
  • If students are distracted, maybe it’s because our presentations aren’t stimulating enough.
  • Don’t be a policeman, but watch for signs that students are distracted by their screens. Adjust.
  • Social media can be a good way to call attention to good student work.
  • Students can find excellent examples of professionals to follow on social media.
  • Social media can be a springboard for establishing a personal brand.
  • Be careful. What you put on social media can last forever.


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Originally published at newsentrepreneurs.blogspot.com on September 17, 2018.



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James Breiner

James Breiner

Entrepreneurial journalism, periodismo emprendedor, multimedia. Work with ICFJ, FNPI, Poynter, Bizjournals, University of Navarra. http://newsentrepreneurs.com