A website blocker is a software program that intentionally restricts access to particular sites. The purpose of website blockers is to deter users from using distracting websites instead of completing their work. Website blocks can be installed on a particular browser as an extension, or sometimes on a computer hard drive. A typical blocker allows users to input particular links into a list. All standard browsers have this feature built, which can usually be access through the advanced browser settings menu. It is also possible to configure an IP address the same way, if desired, blocking a particular site from all computers that share the same network.
It has been empirically shown that when people are attempting to work, but have to inhibit performing a desired task, they work less productively (Bucciol, Houser, & Piovesan, 2013). This project showed with moderate effect sizes that people make more mistakes, and the mistakes are higher impact, when they are working while avoiding a desired activity compared to controls. This was shown with adults (Bucciol, Houser, & Piovesan, 2013), as well as with children (Bucciol, Houser, & Piovesan, 2011).
A preliminary randomized controlled study looked at blocking websites while having students complete tedious, attentionally demanding tasks (Marotta & Acquisti, 2017). Results were measured by what volume of work students completed. Marotta and colleagues found students who were told they would have their favorite websites blocked (Facebook in this case) had higher overall productivity by a significant margin. Students who had the option to use an installed blocker, but did not have it pre-set up with their websites for them did not show the same effects of increased productivity compared to controls. However, it should be noted that there was an inverse relationship to student satisfaction; students that had the blocker forced on them were less happy afterwards than students without (Marotta & Acquisti, 2017).
A related study attempted to use website blockers as a deterrent for internet piracy. This study by Danaher and colleagues found that blocking piracy websites did not reduce piracy, but increased the usage of alternative methods of piracy (Danaher et al, 2015). While not directly about attention management, a concern to monitor when using blockers for students is the presence of this same “distraction shifting”, or simply reverting to a less preferable distraction when Facebook or YouTube is blocked, instead of working.
A related field that has not been explored is the use of Ad-Blocking software. Ad Blockers do not need to be programmed with specific sites, instead automatically blocking various commercials and banners one encounters when surfing the internet. The potential use of ad blockers as an assistive technology is unknown, as current literature in the area is marketing focused (IE trying to make ads more distracting, not less) (Hsieh & Chen, 2011).
*** There is some empirical research on this topic, but it is lacking in replication, and some of it is still in the peer review process.
No training required to use
Compatible with other tools (works on any internet based device)
Customizable (easy to change websites based on individual student preferences)
Early studies show moderate empirical effectiveness in simple tasks
May reduce overall student motivation
Limited replicated research
Unknown magnitude of effect size
May increase student use of other distracting options instead of completing work
Unlike other tools, which typically increase access, website blockers are directly removing access of an individual. Even if the blocked activities are seen to be harmful, it is important to consider individual agreement and buy-in, as blockers have shown to be frustrating and may be seen as punishments. As with any habit, it may also have elements of causing withdrawal symptoms if used for extended periods of time.
Special Consideration: Workflow
Exact prices change frequently, which is why only approximate ranges are listed.
$ - Under $5
$$ - Between $6 and $50
$$$ - Between $51 and $250
$$$$ - Over $250
Bucciol A, Houser D, Piovesan, M. (2011). “Temptation and Productivity: A Field Experiment with Children”. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 78: 126:136.
Bucciol A, Houser D, Piovesan M (2013). “Temptation at Work”. PLoS ONE 8(1):e53713. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0053713.
Danaher, Brett, et al. (2015). “The Effect of Piracy Website Blocking on Consumer Behavior.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2015, doi:10.2139/ssrn.2612063.
Hsieh, Yu-Chen, and Kuo-Hsiang Chen. (2011). “How Different Information Types Affect Viewer’s Attention on Internet Advertising.” Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 27, no. 2, pp. 935–945., doi:10.1016/j.chb.2010.11.019.
Marotta, V & Acquisti, A. (2017). Online Distractions, Website Blockers, and Economic Productivity: A Randomized Field Experiment. Carnegie Mellon University [PRELIMINARY DRAFT] https://weis2017.econinfosec.org/wpcontent/uploads/sites/3/2017/06/WEIS_2017_paper_26.pdf