Sunday, February 23, 2014

"May I Have Your Attention?": The Consequences of Anytime, Anywhere Technology

In the eighth chapter of his book, The Young and the Digital, S. Craig Watkins examines the influence of mobile technology and social media on education in middle/high-school and college settings. Although he points out that interactive technology such as SMART Boards, podcasts, and blogs have significant potential to enhance student learning and engagement, by and large, Watkins’ assessment of mobile technologies like cell phones, iPods, and even laptop computers in the classroom is negative. He argues that such technology leads students to exhibit what he called Continuous Partial Attention (CPA). In this state, a student is constantly agitated and suspicious that something important and interesting is occurring through social media, and he or she is missing it. Watkins believes this is extremely disruptive to a learning environment because the students lack the ability to focus for extended periods of time and engage with the class topic in a meaningful way. Mobile technology has intensified the temptation for students to seek stimulation elsewhere when they become bored during school. The effects of this temptation also extend to daily life, argues Watkins. As examples, he quotes several college students who explained that they often had to distance themselves physically from their computers in order to maintain enough focus to study and complete school assignments (187-189).

S. Craig Watkins is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and he specializes in the study of youth culture, race, and the digital age. In the early 2000’s, he began a multi-year study of the interaction between digital technology and youth culture. This study consisted of surveys and in-depth interviews with teenage and college-age students from around the United States. To publicize his results, Watkins created a website (, which now seems to be defunct, and he later published this book in 2009. Besides this chapter on education, Watkins also examines the role of digital technology in shaping the social structures and interactions among young people. The book was intended for an academic audience, and he cites not only his own study, but also research from other academics, private businesses like Google, and government entities such as school boards. The breadth of data he uses certainly lends credence to Watkins’ conclusions.

However, it seems some of Watkins’ academic peers do not entirely agree with him. In a book review for Transformative Works and Cultures, Melanie Kohnen points out shortcomings she sees in his book. “Watkins is, at best, ambivalent about the value of communities and relationships that exist primarily online… [implying] that online-only communities don’t consist of real people and real friendships” (Kohnen 3-8). Other than pointing out such deficiencies, Kohnen’s review is mostly favorable, and she commends Watkins, saying his book “offers a compelling picture of the many ways in which young people interact with digital media” (10).

Because this work was published over three years ago, some of the attitudes expressed by Watkins and the instructors he interviewed seem somewhat outdated. For example, Watkins notes “a steady rising number of college professors dread the presence of laptops and classrooms offering wi-fi connections” (183). Today, internet-ready classrooms and laptops are the norm, not something to be dreaded. It is interesting to see how much can change in just a few short years.

Kohnen, Melanie E. S. The Young and the Digital: What Migration to Social-Networking Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future, by S. Craig Watkins [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures 8 (2011). doi:10.3983/twc.2011.0357.

Watkins, S. Craig. “‘May I Have Your Attention?’: The Consequences of Anytime, Anywhere Technology.” The Young and the Digital: What Migration to Social-Networking Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future. Boston: Beacon Press, 2009. 171-191.

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