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Research & Insights
August 19, 2021

Combating Digital Distraction: What Research Says About Student Attention

GoGuardian Research Team

Digital tools offer a wealth of opportunities to educators and students alike — but they also come with the potential for digital distraction, especially for younger students who are still developing self-regulation skills. Digital distraction can manifest in several different ways for students: It could be the obvious distractions, such as social media or gaming sites, or it could be working on an assignment for a different class when all the “fun” sites are locked down.

Educators often wonder how to navigate the opportunities provided by digital learning tools without losing time and attention to digital distraction. At GoGuardian, we seek to address this concern by understanding how attention and self-regulation work, and then creating guardrails within classroom technology to set students up for success. 

How Attention and Self-Regulation Influence Student Outcomes

The Research team at GoGuardian works to better understand the relationship between the digital learning experience and student outcomes. Recently, we looked into student attention and self-regulation to understand how our tools could better support students. Here are a few insights we found that could help you manage digital learning in your classroom:

1. Self-control and self-regulation are tied to better future academic achievement.

Humans who have higher levels of self-regulation can notice what’s going on around them without being suddenly consumed by whatever catches their eye. This in students, along with the related ability to delay gratification, may be associated with higher long-term academic achievement and the ability to resist temptation.¹⁻²

2. Humans have a limited capacity for attention,³ and in general, younger students don’t have the same ability to refocus their attention that older children and adults have.⁴⁻⁵

Children haven’t yet learned or developed strategies to govern their limited attention the way adults do, and younger children have a harder time shifting their attention away from the wrong focus once their attention is engaged.⁵ This makes preventing distraction even more important for educators in lower grade levels.

3. Attention and impulse control develop rapidly in early childhood, with significant difference between age 6 and 10.⁶

Self-regulation isn’t downloaded at birth. Like other cognitive skills, it develops over time. A 6-year-old will generally have less attentional capacity and impulse control than a 10-year-old. At age 10, a child's competency for impulse control will generally reach adult levels, but their ability to use this control could benefit from additional nurturing.

4. Multitasking and shifting attention leads to higher stress and worse academic outcomes.⁷⁻⁸

Switching attention from one tab or window to another in short succession can raise stress levels as students try to focus and ingest the information on their screens. The faster they switch, the higher the stress levels.⁷ Studies have found a connection between students spending less time on task and lower academic performance,⁹ so multitasking and shifting attention likely has a negative effect on learning. This insight can be used to guide lesson planning, as well as how digital tools are designed to help students stay on track.

What can we do about it?

Understanding how students learn helps drive the design of our classroom tools, like GoGuardian Teacher™. Here are some features in GoGuardian Teacher that educators can use to combat digital distraction while helping students exercise self-control and self-regulation:

GoGuardian Teacher Scenes

Using Scenes in GoGuardian Teacher, educators can dictate exactly which websites their students can access during class. For younger students, you can add specific sites for a classroom session to the Allow List, while blocking other websites that might be distracting. For older students, you can add specific sites to the Block List to give access to all websites except those you specifically block. 

Open Tab Command

The Open Tab command in GoGuardian Teacher allows you to direct your students to any web page; simply enter a URL and the page will open in a new tab on the selected users' screens. This can be especially useful for younger students who are more likely to misdirect attention with a wrong click or mistyped URL and are slower to refocus.

Close Tab Command

If you find that students are in need of redirection, you can close individual tabs from your Teacher Dashboard. The goal is always to support student learning, so a simple chat message could help your students understand that trying to do multiple things at once — whether school-related or not — will make it harder for them to stay focused in their learning. 

Digital learning technology is useful, both for accessing the troves of educational content available online and for keeping students focused and on task. These takeaways highlight the need for distraction-prevention tools like GoGuardian Teacher in today’s digitally driven classroom. We only have so much attention to give, and so do our students. Let’s train that focus on the learning at hand.

Want to learn more about student engagement in the classroom? Keep an eye out for our Research team’s annual report, State of Engagement, coming in fall 2021.


1. Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodriguez, M. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244(4907), 933-938.

2. Watts, T. W., Duncan, G. J., & Quan, H. (2018). Revisiting the Marshmallow Test: A Conceptual Replication Investigating Links Between Early Delay of Gratification and Later Outcomes. Psychological Science, 29(7), 1159–1177.

3. Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1986(23-28).

4. Matusz, P. J., Broadbent, H., Ferrari, J., Forrest, B., Merkley, R., & Scerif, G. (2015). Multi-modal distraction: Insights from children’s limited attention. Cognition, 136, 156-165.

5. Enns, J., & Brodeur, D. (1989). A developmental study of covert orienting to peripheral visual cues. Journal Of Experimental Child Psychology, 48(2), 171-189.

6. Welsh, M. C., Pennington, B. F., & Groisser, D. B. (1991). A normative‐developmental study of executive function: A window on prefrontal function in children. Developmental Neuropsychology, 7(2), 131-149.

7. Mark, G., Wang, Y., & Niiya, M. (2014). "Stress and multitasking in everyday college life: an empirical study of online activity." In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 41-50.

8. Kim, I., Kim, R., Kim, H., Kim, D., Han, K., & Lee, P. et al. (2019). Understanding smartphone usage in college classrooms: A long-term measurement study. Computers & Education, 141, 103611.

9. Bowman, L. L., Levine, L. E., Waite, B. M., & Gendron, M. (2010). Can students really multitask? An experimental study of instant messaging while reading. Computers & Education, 54(4), 927–931.


As the world of digital learning accelerates, GoGuardian believes it is critical that we study and understand the impact of the digital learning experience on student outcomes. Our research and insights are focused on understanding how the digital learning experience can be improved to maximize achievement in the classroom while unleashing curiosity.

At GoGuardian, we believe the internet is a learning tool and that education solutions are only as valuable as the impact they provide. So as Researchers, it is our job to conduct experiments and gather insights on the impact of the digital learning experience on students and schools.