Tech Overload Wires Young Brains for Distraction, Not Focus
Updated: Mar 2
“Attention is under siege more than it has ever been in human history, we have more distractions than ever before (and) we have to be more focused on cultivating the skills of attention…” – Daniel Goleman
It’s fall. Schools are back in session and remote learning has begun. Well, the remote at least.
The verdict’s still out on the learning part.
For students, teachers and parents, unwillingly swept up in this giant experiment that will work for some and not for many; it seems each individual learner’s attention span and ability to ignore constant distractions will play an enormous role in how well it turns out.
Even more time on screens and devices:
Remote learning and digital classrooms are here, and here to stay – with or without a global pandemic just outside the door. Connecting and learning digitally has become our way of life.
So too, has the non-stop, ‘round-the-clock digital distractions.
Even before coronavirus and remote-learning-for-all, CDC reports showed that children ages 8 to 18 were already averaging somewhere between six and nine hours a day in front of screen.
And while we can point to the voluminous research that year after year, globally, all point to the same, wide-ranging links between digital and social media over-consumption and the development of ADHD, depression, reduced self-esteem and empathy, increased apathy and a general lower psychological well-being, I’ll refrain. Kind of.
No, today instead we look into how the heavy use of devices - ever present and always on – is doing a real number on the attention span and the growing inability to develop critical skills of focus and concentration.
…and just in time for school.
According to development experts, a child should generally be able to maintain an attention span of 2-3 minutes per year of age.
Using this simple calculation of time, a 6-year-old can focus on something for up to 18 minutes; a 12-year-old, up to 36. Some researchers push that to 5 minutes per year of age, meaning some 12-year-olds can focus for an hour.
And while there are other factors that play into this range in any individual child, it can be a helpful gauge - especially considering research has linked the ability to focus and ignore distractions as children with later adult success.
“The first essential for the child’s development is concentration. The child who concentrates is immensely happy.” - Dr. Maria Montessori
The ability to focus is the strongest predictor of success
An often-understated element of success, focus isn’t fun or flashy. Just effective.
Long-term success requires self-control and the skill of being able to focus and ignore increasingly common distractions. It’s also been long-linked to success in various areas of life.
In fact, research shows that the ability to focus is the strongest predictor of success.
Even more valuable than intelligence, socioeconomic status or level of talent. Published in June 2019, a 30-year study out of the University of Montreal, sought to investigate the relationship between traits in early childhood and later adult earned income.
Researchers tracked close to 3,000 five and six-year-olds from kinder through adulthood and uncovered a single trait that, for both boys and girls, predicted future financial income: the ability to focus and pay attention as young children.
On the flip side, there also turned out to be a link between kids unable to maintain attention levels in kindergarten and resulting lower rates of income as adults.
“The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.” - Michael Rich, executive director, Center on Media and Child Health
Developing brains wired to need constant stimulation
The brain is one of the last organs to mature and it continues developing until our mid-20’s.
Clinical psychologist, Dr. David Anderson of the Child Mind Institute sees highly interactive and stimulating devices as having a powerful effect on kids especially. Rather than developing the critical ability to focus attention, young brains are instead forming an addiction to constant feedback and incoming stimuli.
Devices of distraction
The inconvenient truth is that when it comes to the need to dig deep and focus, the devices are not only not helping, they are actively harming the process.
Even for grown-ups, working on a project or studying for a test aren’t nearly as fascinating as the addictive lure of social media, video games or responding to the group chat. These temptations are even more distracting for young people who have less developed impulse-control than adults.
For the generation growing up interacting with multiple screens simultaneously, still-developing brains are being rewarded and then wired for distraction rather than focus.
All the practice flittering between multiple devices at once can make it almost look productive. Don’t be deceived. It’s not.
Neither-tasking rather than multitasking
Research shows that multitasking is ineffective for adults. How is the 10-year’s brain successfully juggling and processing three screens?
Research shows that children raised on screens are not in fact, getting better at doing multiple things at once. Multitasking implies effectiveness in more than one task simultaneously.
What’s happening instead is ‘continuous partial attention’ (CPA) and any student going back and forth between text messages and homework isn’t focusing effectively on either.
Left unchecked, today’s CPA may become tomorrow’s HAA or ‘hardly any attention’ at all.
Story time is back and not in a good way
When we are little, we sit with other littles on colorful rugs and listen intently as the teacher reads us a story, turning the book towards anxious eyes periodically, filling minds with pictures to go along.
Guess what? Story time is back and its way less cute in high school.
More and more, valuable class time is spent reading as a group. Teachers are finding that a growing majority of students lack the attention span to read 30 pages on their own. So, they don’t.
Concentration, comprehension and retention
Attention span is a critical component for understanding and retaining new information.
To really learn, the brain needs to experience periods of sustained focus including reading, comprehending, listening and discussing.
Beyond being able to pay attention, increasingly teachers are reporting that students today have reduced skills of comprehension than earlier student generations, affecting how completely new ideas are understood.
Research led by Harvard neuroscientist Markus Dworak, shows that information retention is severely impacted by technology overuse. They found that the brain uses the intensity, stimulation and interactivity of information to prioritize what information our brains store.
Specifically, the brain overrides less-stimulating but more valuable learning (like vocabulary words), with less relevant but more intense material (like video games).
The ability to focus, to understand and to retain information is simply at odds with constant tech distractions. Research shows that when devices are removed, success follows.
Banning phones from schools improved test scores
A study out of the London School of Economics compared nearly 100 school and student phone policies, covering some 130K students.
Research showed that student test scores improved when schools banned phones; and valued the increased educational impact associated with the lack of school-day distractions equal to an extra 5 school days a year.
Studies have shown that when class is in session, go distraction free for better results in less time.
Phones in school exacerbate the achievement gap
The researchers found that phone use in school also exacerbates the existing achievement gap.
High-achieving students were found to be able to focus in class regardless of the presence of phones. Lower-achieving students, they found, were more easily distracted by devices with average test scores increasing by 14% when the phones were removed from the educational setting.
Reading, writing, arithmetic and …focus?
As technology in and out the classroom, and as the classroom, becomes commonplace, all of this makes the need to re-learn to focus all the more important.
Because developing the ability to focus predicts success, I agree with psychologist and author Daniel Goleman who advocates for adding focus and concentration skills into the school curriculum.
How can we use technology to serve us intelligently and aid in education while still allowing for deep thinking and understanding?
Focused, undistracted sessions – minus technology - prioritize learning.
How else will story time get back to intelligent literacy discussion?
Focus affects self-control and empathy
But the stakes are higher than even attention spans and the ability to focus. Our ability to concentrate comes from the same part of the brain as self-control, emotional-control and empathy.
Beyond learning and information retention, the inability for focused concentration impacts also the ability to control emotions and develop compassion for others.
Dr. David Anderson noted that the impact on healthy development is related to how much time kids spend on screens. Children who spent more than two-thirds of their time on screens showed higher levels of anti-social behavior, poor interpersonal skills and increased anxiety and depression.
Kids need downtime and unplugged boredom
Like adult brains, developing brains also benefit greatly from periods of rest, away from a screen…or three.
During downtime and periods of rest, the brain switches gears to information processing in order to create memory, connect disparate ideas in order to spark creativity and even help us develop a sense of ourselves.
As parents, we want the best for our children. We spend so much time and energy on lessons and enrichment and tutoring and extracurriculars – all in efforts to give them the best chance.
And yet the biggest impact on their future is as close as your child’s palm.
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