Digital Self-Control Tools in Higher Education: A Dive into Effectiveness and Perception

While the accessibility to information and the myriad of online learning resources offer a wealth of benefits, the potential for distraction can hinder academic progress. Addressing this paradox, our educational technologies research group has delved into the realm of digital self-control tools (DSCTs) to better understand their utilization, effectiveness, and perception among higher education students. Our findings have been published in the article “Use of digital self-control tools in higher education – a survey study” in the  journal “Education and Information Technologies“.

A widespread issue among students today is the struggle between immediate gratification and the pursuit of long-term academic goals. Distractions such as social media browsing and video watching can often compete with essential study time. The negative impact of these distractions on academic performance and psychological well-being has been extensively documented in previous studies. Digital distractions, in fact, pose such a severe problem that device manufacturers are now embedding digital well-being features to address the issue.

Digital Self-Control Tools have surfaced as potential aids in this battle against digital distractions. From website blockers to app usage visualizations, these tools come with a plethora of features aimed at enhancing students’ focus. Despite their availability and the problems they aim to solve, there are still gaps in our understanding of these tools. Do students know about them? Do they find them helpful? Why might they choose not to use them?

Surveying 273 higher education students, our study shed light on several key aspects:

  • Perception vs. Awareness: The most helpful features of DSCTs are among the least known. Ironically, the most common features are often perceived as unhelpful.
  • Habitual Media Use: We discovered a negative correlation between habitual media use and the usage of less restrictive DSCT features.
  • Dual-purpose Platforms: Platforms that serve both educational and entertainment purposes, such as YouTube, pose a unique challenge. Students often find themselves micro-managing their DSCTs, leading to potential inefficiencies and frustration.
  • Knowledge & Use of DSCTs: There is a notable gap between the awareness of DSCTs and their actual use among students.
  • Habits and DSCT Effectiveness: Habitual media use might decrease the perceived effectiveness of certain DSCT features.
  • Reasons for Ceasing DSCT Use: Many students stop using DSCTs due to varied reasons, pointing towards potential areas for improvement in these tools. Our paper contains a qualitative analysis of these reasons.

Our research emphasizes the need for broader awareness campaigns for digital self-control tools. Moreover, there’s a pressing requirement for understanding individual differences, adapting tools accordingly, and ensuring DSCTs are intuitive and less demanding in their management.

Digital distractions, while challenging, aren’t insurmountable. With the right tools, understanding, and adaptation, we believe that students can harness the full potential of digital learning platforms without falling prey to their pitfalls. We hope our findings pave the way for more tailored and effective digital self-control solutions in the higher education landscape.