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Technology and the Teenage Brain

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In May 2013, I attended Dr. Larry Rosen’s informative lecture on “Technology and the Brain” during the 21st Century Learning Conference here in Hong Kong.  Dr. Rosen spoke to a theatre filled with parents and young adolescents eager to learn more about the impact of technology on brain development. For those of you who did not attend, I thought I’d share some of the most salient facts I learned from the talk.

The Myth of Multitasking 

Multitasking is now being referred to as Continuous Partial Attention with the current Generation C (i.e. Generation Connected) believing they can handle 5 to 8 tasks at one time.  Studies show they can’t and unfortunately most teens are distracted by having too many windows open at the same time.  It is critical that we remind our students to simply close windows, and better yet, quit programs (Skype in particular) so that they can avoid distractions and focus on their studies.  Many students find the application Self Control extremely helpful in blocking their favorite social media, gaming sites, etc for a designated amount of time while they do their work.

It is true that most of us can handle true multitasking: the ability to do two things at same time yet this is generally limited to automatic tasks, (for example: walking and chewing). When we are attending to more than one non-automatic task at a time, our brains are actually “task switching” and our brains are being taxed by having to ferry oxygen to one place to another.  What are the costs of task switching all the time?

1. attention difficulties

2. poor decision making

3. learning only the breadth versus the depth of material

4. information overload

5. poor sleep habits

6. overuse of caffeine and energy drinks

Importance of Sleep

Brains need sleep essentially to consolidate learning and it is recommended that adolescents have nine hours of sleep per night.  Sleep is necessary for synaptic rejuvenation, basically the resetting of brain.  Studies indicate that teen sleep disruption does not originate from the light from devices, not from couch potato activities, nor from the computer and homework.  Sleep disruption comes from incessant multitasking especially when smart phones are near teens and not turned off.  Sleep deprivation affects the function of prefrontal cortex, the ability to make decisions, and the ability to attend to tasks.

What can Parents do?

After all this sobering news, what can we do?  We should teach teens to understand their brains.  We need to help adolescents understand how to reset their brains.  It’s also essential that we teach them to focus.  Due to the increasing need to stay connected (in fact many teens suffer from “FOMO” – fear of missing out), Dr. Rosen suggests the use of timers for tech breaks.  For example, students could set a timer to study for 15 – 20 minutes and  then check their social media.  Gradually, the time could be extended thereby training the brain to sustain focus for extended periods of time.  Here are more of Dr. Rosen’s suggestions:

– take nature breaks (live or virtual) to calm the brain

– expose oneself to music/art (10 mins every hour)

– exercise

– laugh: it calms the brain

– relax: take a hot bath

– practice a foreign language

– play a musical instrument

– help the family all become GEEKS:

G – follow the “Grandmother” rule, i.e. if anything posted on the net would be okay for our grandmother to see, then it should be fine.

E – “E waiting period”– every time we type something out, we should resist hitting send or post.  It’s best to wait 15 seconds.  Also, we need to allow computers time to upload or start a program.  Studies show that most teens have little tolerance for wait time and will do another task in the meanwhile thus starting the cycle of multitasking.

E – start EARLY with children.  Talk about appropriate tech use and digital citizenship.  Have regular discussions at family meetings/family dinners with everyone sitting or eating and talking with no tech whatsoever.

K – Keep vigilant.  Have locations where tech is allowed and monitor screen time.  The recommended ratio of screen time is 1 minute of tech to 5 minutes of non-tech for young kids.  For 10 to 12 year olds, the ratio is 5 minutes of tech to 5 mins on non-tech while for teens, it becomes for every 5 mins of tech, 1 minute of non-tech.

Yes, technology does present a myriad of challenges for parents of Generation C, yet as we have learned throughout history, it is essential that parents bridge the generational gap by seeking to understand and embrace the views and habits of the new generation.

Nancy A. Remondi


Author: nremondi

Like many of my students, I am a Third Culture Kid - well, a Third Culture Big Kid. In my adult life, I have lived and worked as an middle school educator in Japan, Hong Kong, Jordan, England and the United Arab Emirates. In 2009, I returned to Hong Kong to take my first post as a middle school counselor where I have truly found my niche. My days are filled with opportunities to connect with students, colleagues and parents. I absolutely love my job. When not connecting with the school community, I enjoy all this great city has to offer - from its hiking trails and beaches to the crowded markets of Kowloon and the cosmopolitan chic of Central. My passions include travel, photography, service work, food, cinema, literature and the arts.

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