How to Encourage Teens' Focus in a Tech-Heavy World

Apps to help study

When I speak at schools, I begin by asking the students how many of them would like five to seven extra hours of free time every week. The response generally depends on the age group of the audience. Middle-schoolers’ eyes widen as they fervently raise their hands in approval. High school students are more reserved and usually nod their heads slowly in tacit agreement. When I ask the students how they would spend the extra free time, I hear the same response in near unison – “sleep.”

Over the course of my presentation, I help them see how little habits like checking texts while finishing math homework can add up to hours of missed free time every day or week. Students laugh nervously when I explain how very few people can actually spend less than five minutes watching YouTube videos.

Today, many of the schools I visit and consult with have 1:1 iPad or computer programs, which provide each student a sleek tablet or device to use. For students, the increased classroom technology presents the added challenge of having a device to complete work that is often their main source of distraction from getting work done.


Parents and educators can play a valuable role in helping students find tools that promote their development of self-management skills. Pre-teens and teenagers are at an age where self-regulation seems nearly impossible, yet nearly every student really wants to do well in school (but many may not admit that as readily to parents). Often there are so many outside sources of distraction that students don’t even know where to start in terms of organizing and managing their technology use.

The good news is that more and more tools are becoming available to help students navigate the potential sources of distraction. Here are a few I often recommend:

SelfControl: (Mac) or Cold Turkey (PC): Many of my students use one of these two apps to block certain websites for a designated amount of time while they are trying to complete their homework. For example, from 4-7 p.m. every school night, some of my students block all of their biggest online distractions – Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube and It’s a great tool for those who are disciplined and honest enough to the spend time to manually add the potentially distracting sites.

PaperHelper: In landscape mode, this app splits the screen so that one side has a document or paper and the other side can be used for conducting research (e.g., searching a website). For students who work on an iPad or a smaller monitor, this app can be helpful because it eliminates the need to toggle back and forth between screens. Some might find the icons at the top of the screen distracting or confusing, but it is definitely worth trying.

Simple Pomodoro Timer: I encourage students to use the Pomodoro Method of working for 25 minutes and then taking a five-minute break. Students are often less overwhelmed by the prospect of breaking their workload into more manageable 25-minute blocks of time, and the Simple Pomodoro Timer app allows them to track their work/rest break. Tip: Checking social media during the five-minute break is usually ineffective.


Freedom: For those who need complete focus, the Freedom app disables all access to the Internet. The challenge, of course, comes when a student needs to use the Internet for research for a paper or assignment. Many professional writers use this when deadlines and distractions are looming.

Research Project Calculator: Many students struggle with breaking down larger assignments into manageable pieces. This website helps students space out parts of an assignment or project based on a due date by giving concrete dates when different parts of a project should be completed. Each phase can be general, and students should determine when each step must be done. It is a good way to start students thinking about how to break down steps.

More tips can be found in my books That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week and The Myth of the Perfect Girl.



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