A Deep Dive into the Digital Dilemma
How Technology is Taking a Toll on Today’s College Students
It’s no secret that technology has become an essential part of our daily lives, and education is no exception. With smart devices and digital tools flooding the traditional classroom, we wanted to see how technology is affecting U.S. college students. So, we commissioned a study to find out: when does the use of technology in education become too much? Our study dives deep into the digital dilemma and explores how college students are using digital tools, how being connected affects them personally and academically, and how the emergence of AI could increase current challenges in universities.
Students Spend Almost a Year of Their College Lives Staring at Screens, and the Trend is Rising
The digital era has taken over the lives of university students, who now spend an average of nine hours a day glued to their electronic devices, for both school and “play.” This means that by the end of their university life, students will have spent 240 days (or 5,760 hours) viewing screens - time that could likely be better spent hanging out with friends and building meaningful, in-person connections around campus.
Even more concerning though, is that over half of all students reported an increase in screen time over the past year, suggesting that this number will continue to grow.
College Students Feel Constant Pressure to Stay “Plugged In,” But the Cost is High
Most students (61.0%) are feeling pressure to stay connected to their digital devices and the internet. However, the constant connectivity negatively affects their college experience, both personally and academically. Surprisingly, nearly 3 in 5 students admit that technology hinders their ability to focus on academic work.
In the past, students were better able to separate their personal life from their academic work. However, today a large portion (41.4%) of college students struggle to manage their technology use for both academic and personal activities.
Tech is Distracting Students During Class, and Helping Them Cheat - GASP!
Now, let's talk about how technology is shaking up dynamics in the classroom. The average student brings two connected devices to class, and over half of them (53.7%) are getting distracted during lectures because of it. Not only are students disengaged and scrolling TikTok and Instagram during class, but these distractions are also leading to fewer face-to-face interactions, increased reliance on technology for problem-solving, and an overall lack of focus.
Tech isn’t just a distraction, either. Our study also found that an alarming majority of college students reported technology being used to cheat. A shocking 84.2% of college students reported that they either witnessed or were aware of fellow students using tech to cheat in class.
Artificial Intelligence Presents a New Challenge for Both Teachers and Students
Artificial intelligence (AI) is now posing a new challenge for students and teachers alike.
Although AI is being rapidly adopted, college students don’t seem quite as eager. Only 19.6% of college students said they regularly used ChatGPT or other AI tools in their work, and just 26.72% said they used it occasionally. In fact, 33.68% of college students reported that they have never used ChatGPT or any other AI tools for their college work.
While many students (42%) believe that using AI can be ethical for academic work, a larger number (79%) said that they’ve witnessed their peers using these tools unethically, mainly to finish their assignments.
Without clear direction or standards, college students are needing to navigate new technology on their own.
Students are Feeling Lonelier Despite Being More Connected Than Ever
Technology is taking its toll on college students, and it's not just about academic integrity—it's affecting their mental health, too. Shockingly, more than half (51.9%) of college students feel lonely even though they are active online. They are also incredibly self-aware when it comes to their digital habits. For example:
50.6% - Say technology use contributes to their feelings of isolation.
48.5% - Believe reducing their use of technology devices may decrease feelings of loneliness.
48.1% - Think making friends in school would be easier without the ubiquitous use of technology.
Most Students Think It’s Time for a Tech Break
Students reported feeling overwhelmed by constant tech use, with many expressing a growing desire to disconnect. In fact, more than half of students (53.1%) are considering taking a break from their devices in the coming year. Sadly, only 40.2% of college students have ever ditched their screens during their college years.
So, what does taking a break from tech mean and what’s the best way to go about doing it? We tapped Kelly P. Dillon, PhD, an Associate Professor at the Department of Communication & Digital Media at Wittenberg University, to see how she advises her students to disconnect.
“There is a universal need to either disconnect from devices and the stressors they might bring or to connect interpersonally with others. It is important to recognize when those needs arise, and to have a plan in place to execute without further stressing yourself out,” Kelly said.
- Try Journaling. “Some ways to disconnect or even preparing to connect is to journal. There’s tons of research showing how beneficial journaling can be if you need to process something important or daunting, when upset, or even just to get some thoughts or feelings out in a private manner,” says Kelly.
- Doodling can give your brain a break - just like stretching. “Another thing I have done in class to help my students get out of their heads is to zen tangle or doodle. Some studies have even shown those who doodle while engaging in a listening task will remember more. Zen tangles are similar, but are more purposeful doodles,” said Kelly.
The Path Ahead for Students and Universities
Taking a break from tech can do wonders for students. Our survey found that students who unplugged saw increased productivity (36.1%), improved focus (35.6%), and better sleep quality (33.4%).
Kelly explained, research has found the use of laptops or tablets to take lecture notes during class leads to worse performance on memory or test tasks compared to handwriting notes.
“Studies show computer use leads to poor academic performance, overall GPA, and course outcomes. Recall for memory or exams is not the only benefit of handwriting your notes. Other studies have found students are better at connecting concepts and answering conceptual questions when they have handwritten notes on the same content others used a laptop,” she said.
“In my experience, students who use laptops in class typically will try to transcribe the lecture into their notes. Their focus is more on getting every word I say than seeing the big picture. Additionally, the laptop connected to the internet gives an easier route to distraction,” she continued.
Yet, despite all these benefits, many students feel like they're "supposed" to stay connected and that their schools aren't doing enough when it comes to supporting their breaks. In fact, the majority (82.4%) of students feel that schools could be doing more to help them take a break from technology. Many students specifically want more offline social activities and events (33.0%) and access to offline resources and study materials (32.8%) to help them reduce their tech usage.
“Our campus has workshops and trainings for students to take notes,” Kelly shared. “I include a note-taking lecture in my first year class, and our department has started to implement the 3QSR method in our 101 class. I include guided notes for all my recorded lectures. Guided notes have been found to be a great universal design for learning, and takes the pressure off of the student to get everything down. I also provide guided learning sheets for readings – big questions, learning objectives, etc.”
“In the end, learning how to learn is hard. We don’t do enough training of it in our secondary schools and too many of us in the post-secondary educational settings take the skill for granted.”
In addition to providing support for students to disconnect, many students (78%) believe schools and universities could be doing more to prevent cheating through technology and AI. That said, as many as 1 in 5 students report that their schools are not even making an effort to combat unethical practices.
Today’s universities are struggling with a major problem: the impact of digital devices on students and educators. Our research found that spending too much time in front of screens can cause academic distractions, cheating, and even social isolation among college students. The rise of AI on campus poses another dilemma for students, blurring the line between study assistance and the use of unethical shortcuts to complete assignments.
Fortunately, students are taking matters into their own hands when it comes to the negative effects of technology. They're finding ways to improve their focus and mental health by disconnecting from their devices and exploring other strategies. But here's the thing - they think universities could help out a bit more. They want schools to step up and manage tech usage, stop digital cheating, and provide offline options for studying and socializing.
Technology is essential in education, but it needs balance. Universities should be mindful when introducing new tools and promote ethical usage among students. When done right, technology can unlock unprecedented growth and opportunities for students.
A Message from Rocketbook
At Rocketbook, we're all about enhancing learning through innovative technology, while also reducing the need for screens. Our reusable smart notebooks are the perfect solution for students who want to take notes the old-fashioned way, but also keep everything organized and easily accessible in the digital world. These notebooks are distraction-free and offline, so you can focus on your studies without the negative effects of too much screen time. We believe that technology should enhance, not detract from, your academic success, and we're here to help you strike that perfect balance.
We're on a mission to make sure that technology is used to fuel, rather than diminish, education. We're working hard to get solutions out there that will help students use technology responsibly and ethically, and stay focused on what truly matters in their educational journey. We're committed to helping students, educators, and universities stay on top of the challenges and opportunities presented by the digital age.
This study was commissioned by Rocketbook and conducted by market research partner, Pollfish. It was completed by gathering responses from 1,250 current college students, aged between 18 and 25, across the United States. The data was collected through an online survey, optimized for both mobile and desktop use, and deployed via Pollfish's platform.