Academic Advising Resources


Resources on Generational Issues

Digital Distractions: College Students in the 21st Century

Jennifer Endres and Danielle Tisinger


College Students Today


Students in the Millennial generation enter college with an increasing amount of technology savvy. These students are the first generation to grow up in the Digital Age. They have always had a computer at home and use it in ways that their parents could never have imagined.


What does this mean for educators? This article highlights issues and proposes possible solutions. We discuss the skills these different technologies promote in our students, and offer some suggestions for advisors who seek to encourage further student growth.


Imagine meeting a student in the office for an advising appointment. When you greet this student, she acknowledges you by pulling one iPod ear bud out of her ear; you can hear the music pumping. You request that she turn off the iPod as you begin to discuss her courses and academic goals. In the middle of your conversation, her cell phone rings and your student answers it. You gather that she is speaking with her mother: "Yes, I'm in my appointment right now. ... Yes, I remember.... No, I haven't asked her yet. Hang on." Then she turns to you and says, "My mother wants to know if these are the right courses for my major." Before you have a chance to respond, she returns to her call. "Yeah, mom, I asked her. I'll text you when I'm done."


Many advisors have seen variations of this scenario played out in their offices. Technology is ever present in the lives of our students and their families. Cell phones eliminate the need for expensive long-distance phone calls; they allow students and parents to instantly connect about college experiences. How do these components fit into a generational scheme?




Strauss and Howe (2003) are possibly the foremost authorities on generational identities and behaviors. They list six generations living today:

  • the Lost Generation (born 1883-1900)
  • the G.I. Generation (born 1901-1924)
  • the Silent Generation (born 1925-1942)
  • the Boom Generation (born 1943-1960)
  • Generation X (born 1961-1981)
  • the Millennial Generation (born 1982-now).


Strauss and Howe posit that being part of a generation includes a set of common beliefs and behaviors as well as a common location in history. Academic advisors must come to terms with how we fit into the generational schemata, and how our common beliefs and assumptions are similar to or different from those of other generations including students from the Millennial generation.


The following attributes are among those most applied to the Millennial generation: special, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, achieving, pressured, and conventional. These characteristics are a distinct contrast from those applied to the previous group, Generation X: slackers, individually motivated, lacking respect for authority, and world wise. ( 1 ) It may come as a surprise to advisors working with Millennial students that this is a generation that will accept guidance and instruction. However we must remember that college may be the first time that Millennials have received any indication that may not be as special as they have been treated. ( 2 )


Types and Uses of Technology


With increasing technological demands in the world, colleges continue to demand more technological expertise from faculty and staff. For better or worse, Millennial students are bringing a wide array of technologies to campus. Millennials prefer web-based resources such as Facebook for forming groups and staying in contact with friends; they turn to iTunes and downloadable media sources for entertainment, and use and as academic resources. Many students maintain blogs through sites such as LiveJournal and Blogger, and read other blogs for breaking news and updates in specific areas of interest.


Millennial students are constantly wired and connected. Their activities revolve around their cell phones, iPods, TVs, and gaming consoles. They learned how to create Power Point presentations in junior high and are frequently surprised when their professors do not lecture with Power Point. Jones (2002)indicated that 72% of all students check their email daily, and 26% of college students use instant messaging on an average day. A similar survey in 2005 found that 83% of adults in the 18-29 age range participate in online activities (Demographics, 2007).


Not surprisingly, technology shows up in students' academic and personal lives. Jones (2002) found that 46% of students report that email allows them to express ideas to professors they otherwise would not express in person, 19% say they communicate more with professors via email than in person, and 73% report that they use the Internet more than the library to search for information.


Is there anything to be gained from student use of these varying technologies? We believe there is. Games, instant messaging, and other forms of rapid communication help students develop fast reflexes, a minimalist standard that helps eliminate wordiness, and the ability to gather information quickly. They can quickly sort through information from a variety of sources and access information far more quickly than previous generations. Carlson (2003) noted that "video games. immerse people in worlds and make them rely on problem-solving skills to reach defined goals"(¶ 15). He also reminds us that "people learn best when they are entertained, when they can use creativity to work toward complex goals, when lesson plans incorporate both thinking and emotion, and when the consequences of actions can be observed"(¶ 14)and that contemporary classrooms fail to meet these educational needs. This is not to say that college learning must always be entertaining, but many of the elements Carlson noted can be added to current classroom practices in ways that can increase the potential for learning.


Unfortunately, as new technologies emerge, many on our campuses see a decline in the educational outcomes of student learning. Quick access to information can lead to a lack of critical thinking about sources and quality of information, as well as an inability to "mine for data;" many students will likely click one or two pages into a Website, but no further. Students regularly use Websites and blogs to post their online diaries, not only revealing dangerous and illegal behaviors, but opening themselves up to privacy and safety concerns. Bugeja (2006) has dubbed this type of critical thinking "'interpersonal intelligence,' or the ability to discern when, where, and for what purpose technology may be appropriate or inappropriate"(¶ 28).For the purpose of this article, we will group the negative behaviors associated with technology under the "interpersonal intelligence" umbrella.


Meeting Students Where They Are


The reality is that technology and its applications on college campuses is not going away. Cohen and Rosenzweig (2006) remind us that technology has long been an issue on campuses, citing the example of allowing calculators in math classrooms. Because accurate information can be quickly found, questions of pedagogy may come up as we discuss the value of memorizing facts as opposed to critical investigations of the meanings of those facts. While we do not necessarily advocate for a complete overhaul of the use of technology, we do suggest that it is worth looking at ways to help reward the positive values of technology while teaching students how to avoid the negatives.


Perhaps the most important way we can help students learn is to return to the idea of advising as teaching. Academic advisors may not teach in classrooms, but part of our job is to teach students how to negotiate the world outside of the classroom. When we meet with students, we should model good behavior by turning off our radios, phone ringers, or computer speakers. Further avenues for modeling good behavior can come in our own communications with students. We need to make sure that the answers we provide are correct and properly spelled. Advisors should not be overly familiar with students; we should address them in face-to-face conversations and email replies courteously and professionally. We should use teachable moments to reinforce the grammar, spelling, and contextual expectations we have for email and instant messaging.


Advising-on-demand is a positive use of technology that allows a student sitting alone in the middle of the night to access important information. Including straightforward information online can help students who need to access information such as how to withdraw from a class. This on-demand information is in no way meant to replace individual advising for students, but it can ease immediate anxieties prior to an advising session.


On-demand advising can take several different forms. Podcasting is one way to connect with students.( 3 ) Podcasts and online video can act as a way to reach students who are unable to attend information sessions. Information accessed through these techniques can help students refresh their understanding of the policies they heard at orientation. CNN reports that some instructors ask students to download films to their video-capable iPods to watch out of class (Rural, 2006). Other professors post audio podcasts with answers to the week's most asked questions. ( 4 ) Advising through the use of instant messaging has also become popular on some campuses. IM advisors can help students with immediate questions receive correct information when they need it.


Finally, advisors can take heart in the fact that they are not alone in learning how to use technology effectively. Many advising units have enlisted the help of faculty and campus resources, such as the library, in technological instruction. Advisors can develop training seminars to understand the technologies students bring with them to campus, and to find collaborative ways to meet the students half way by teaching them to use the technologies appropriately.. Libraries are ideal locations to help teach students effective research skills.( 5 ) Instructors can incorporate appropriate technology into classrooms. Syracuse University and the University of Washington have teamed up with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to establish a Website called the Credibility Commons that is designed to help Web users filter through the massive amounts of online information to determine credible sources. Instructors, advisors, and librarians can work together to help students not only learn what online credibility is, but help them find resources that will help them make wise decisions about the references they cite.




The goal of this paper is not to sway advisors over to the dark side of technology. Rather, we want advisors to consider how technology can shape our responses to students. Technology should not be used on campus just because it is available; rather, conscious decisions must be made to be sure that it fills appropriate pedagogical concerns (Moneta, p. 7).


Jennifer Endres and Danielle Tisinger



Bugeja, M. (2006, January 23). Facing the Facebook. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrievedfrom


Carlson, S. (2003, August 15) Can Grand Theft Auto inspire professors? The Chronicle of Higher Education, 49. Retrievedfrom


Chickering, A. and Reisser, L. Education and Identity (2 nd ed.)San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Cohen, D. and Rosenzweig, R. (2006, February 24). No computer left behind. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrievedfrom


Demographics of Internet Users. (2007). Retrieved from

Evans, N., Forney, D., & Guido-DiBrito, F. (1998). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Howe, N. and Strauss, W. The millenials go to college.Washington,DC: AACRAO, p. 19.


Jones, S. (2002). The internet goes to college: How students are living in the future with today's technology.Retrieved fromERIC.


Kiernan, V. (2006, March 29). Researchers cooperate to create better ways of finding reliable information online. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from


Moneta, L. (2005). "Technology and student affairs: Redux." In K. Kruger (Ed.) Technology in student affairs: Supporting student learning and services (3-14).San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Rural college pushes iPod use for lectures. (2006, March 20). Retrieved from



(1) Howe and Strauss also suggest that the generation with whom Millennials might most closely identify is the Silent Generation, characterized by conservative and risk-adverse tendencies, including societal conformity.

(2) Another valuable source for understanding current generations is Beloit College 's annual Mindset list. The most recent list can be found online a t

(3) Please visit the University of Minnesota 's Digital Media Center for more information on Podcasting in education:

(4) The October 18, 2005, edition of the Washington Post also has an article on the use of Podcasting in elementary schools. Find the article online at

(5) The University of Minnesota 's library has developed an Undergraduate Virtual Library that provides immediate access to a number of helpful hints. Visit it at for a more detailed look and for a news brief with more details about the project.

Cite this resource using APA style as:

Endres, J. and Tisinger. D.(2007).Digital Distractions: College Students in the 21st Century.Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site:[insert url here]


Actions: E-mail | Permalink |
The contents of all material on this Internet site are copyrighted by the National Academic Advising Association, unless otherwise indicated. Copyright is not claimed as to any part of an original work prepared by a U.S. or state government officer or employee as part of that person's official duties. All rights are reserved by NACADA, and content may not be reproduced, downloaded, disseminated, published, or transferred in any form or by any means, except with the prior written permission of NACADA, or as indicated or as indicated in the 'Copyright Information for NACADA Materials' statement. Copyright infringement is a violation of federal law and is subject to criminal and civil penalties. NACADA and National Academic Advising Association are service marks of the National Academic Advising Association.

Index of Topics
Advising Resources

Do you have questions?  Do you need help with an advising topic? 
Email us.