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  • Heather Davis

Tech Overload Wires Young Brains for Distraction, Not Focus

Updated: Sep 18, 2020

“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.

Average kid-attention-spans

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