Attention and the Brain: Why It’s Hard to Filter Out Digital Distractions

During a short stint of online learning this winter I paused behind my oldest who was perched at the table with his Chromebook open. 

As he haphazardly clicked around the screen, it didn’t take long for me to remember what a heavy lift it is for a growing brain to focus attention amidst a sea of digital distractions. Despite his earnest attempts to read an assigned passage, it was clear that his attention was pulled in about five different directions in just the few minutes I was standing there. 

My first instinct was to slow his fast-clicking fingers with my own and then position myself in his field of hearing with louder and more clear instructions to, “PAY ATTENTION!” 

Luckily I have learned through experience that the, “say it louder and more emphatically” doesn’t work very well. Plus I knew that the reality was that his brain was paying attention. Just not the kind that would serve his reading comprehension or learning.  

Child trying to focus their attention during distance learning

Reactive attention

We tend to think of attention as something we are either “doing or not doing.” In other words, we are either paying attention or daydreaming. Working or clicking around online. It turns out though that our brain is equipped with two different attention systems that help us attend to the data we receive from the world around us. 

If a mouse darted out in front of you while reading this blog, none of you would “decide” to pay attention to it. Instead, within milliseconds, and regardless of how engaging this blog, you would orient your attention system immediately towards the mouse. 

You can thank your reactive attention system for this speedy and efficient response. This “orienting response” is located deep within our brain. It is automatic, instinctive and helps us focus our attention when something is moving, novel, or unexpected in our field of vision. This is essential to our survival. To stay safe, we need to react quickly to potential threats in our environment. 

The good news for our survival is that we don’t have to teach this skill to kids. We are all born expert reactors. 

Focused attention

Our focused attention system, on the other hand, is located in the prefrontal cortex, or the “executive center” of our brains. We use the focused attention system when we decide to pay attention to one stream of information while ignoring others. Focused attention also includes sustained attention, meaning that we can maintain this kind of focus over a period of time. Unlike reactive attention, focused attention is not automatic and is only developed with a lot of practice.

The strength of our focused attention depends upon two things: wiring and practice. Focused attention can require more or less effort for different kids. This is part of the neurodiversity that makes all of us unique. No matter our baseline though, focused attention can improve with practice. This is because, “whatever the brain does a lot, is what the brain gets good at.” Our brain’s executive function skills get stronger the more we use them. 

Digital distractions

Unfortunately, our devices don’t give us a lot of opportunities to focus our attention on one task unless we set them up that way. Instead, they are designed to get and hold our attention.  This happens in a couple of ways:

  • Attention hooks. While compelling content, good storytelling, and engaging learning experiences are more likely to hold our attention, the easiest way to cut through the noise to get our attention is to deliver some kind of a hook for our reactive attention system. This is why our devices are set up with notifications and our videos loaded with jump cuts. Research shows that even when we ignore these notifications, we still suffer an attentional cost.
  • Self interruption. To be fair, it isn’t just our automatic reactions that interrupt our focus. We frequently interrupt ourselves with thoughts of what we might do online. This is especially tempting when we perceive online activities as more rewarding than a more difficult task at hand.
  • Interruption chains. The challenge of both of these kinds of interruptions is that once our attention has shifted, we tend to engage in a chain of unrelated activities on our devices as our seeking brain and other reward loops take over. So getting back to our original task takes longer and requires more effort.

This was likely at play when my son was clicking around on his computer despite his best intentions to concentrate. He wasn’t deliberately switching tasks, he was simply reacting to hooks that came across his screen or his mind and clicking along each link in an engaging chain of interruptions.

Do screens make kids more distractible?

The reality is that our media landscape provides plenty of hooks for our reactive attention system. This means it takes a lot more effort to practice focused attention. Connecting the dots, lots of parents are asking questions about the relationship between screen time and attention over the long term. Studies do seem to point to a small negative relationship between tech habits and distractibility. Yet the evidence relies on correlational and self-reported data. This makes it hard to say with certainty which direction it runs. For example, are distracted kids drawn more to time on screens or do screens make kids more distractible? Research does appear to indicate that while gaming and social media may not cause things like ADHD, these activities may compound existing attention problems for some children.

To be clear, digital distractions are not the only thing that make it difficult to focus. Since focusing attention and filtering out distractions are part of our suite of executive function skills located in our prefrontal cortex, they are also easily compromised by stress and lack of sleep. Feeling foggy, unfocused, or easily distracted are among the many common faces of stress in kids and adults alike.

Let’s practice attending to what matters most

What we do know with certainty is that our attention is a precious resource. And while in ideal conditions, we may still be able to pay attention – our current environment can make it exceedingly difficult to do so. 

The solution isn’t to send our kids into a monochrome room with the emphatic instructions to “STAY FOCUSED!” Focused attention also isn’t about priming kids for routine, boring tasks. Quite the opposite. Focused attention is a necessary ingredient for relationships, reflection, and integration. It helps us make critical choices about what is valuable and worth attending to.

And there is a lot in the world that demands our sustained focus right now. So let’s practice. 

Here are some ways to get started:

Talk about the attention economy.

Our kids should learn that media isn’t just constructed to connect and persuade – it is also constructed to attract our attention and to sell. It is inherently a commercial digital ecosystem. This is especially important given that our kids’ time, attention, and data are at the heart of what makes the tech industry hum

Encourage singletasking.

Singletasking doesn’t mean asking kids to use focused attention for hours on end. It does mean putting unrelated digital distractions off and away during study time. This includes silencing notifications, putting cell phones off and away, and turning off unrelated background media (with the exception of soft music or white noise). Start with five or ten minute stretches and extend from there. For older kids, a body and brain break every fifteen to thirty minutes can help us recharge for another focused session.

Respect neurodiversity.

For some kids, focusing attention may take a lot more effort than for others simply because of how their brains are wired. Blaming a child’s ability to focus on their motivation or scapegoating technology isn’t fair to anyone. If your child has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) for example, the reward systems that support focused attention are likely different. Understanding this allows you to provide even more proactive supports for focus including more frequent movement breaks, using white noise, or breaking work into even smaller chunks.

Use tech support.

When it comes to digital devices, “proximity is destiny.” Of course in an ideal world we would all have the internal impulse control to make good choices about when to scroll and when to focus on the task at hand. Yet we know these internal skills are still developing in children’s growing brains. Plus we are ALL up against powerful technology designed to keep our eyes glued to the screen. So for kids grappling with digital distractions or for adults eager to carve out more phone-free time, don’t hesitate to use tech tools to support your efforts.

Play, read, daydream.

Focused attention isn’t just for studying and working. Free play, reading for pleasure, board games, daydreaming and plenty of other delightful activities help us practice focused attention and flow.