A number of years ago a parent, Eleanor, contacted me after a talk to ask me a question about digital distractions. Eleanor had recently attended her son Jeremy’s school conferences and was surprised to learn that he was having a very difficult time focusing in class.
“Dr. Walsh,” she exclaimed, “It doesn’t make any sense! He comes home from school and spends hours online. I have never seen such focus in a kid! How could he have an attention problem?”
Eleanor assumed that the problem must be with the teacher, not Jeremy.
“I don’t mean to question his teacher’s commitment,” she went on, “but it is clear that Jeremy can pay attention, so I think it is a problem with his classroom – it’s too boring.”
Given that I hadn’t met her son nor her son’s teacher I made sure I didn’t respond too quickly. However, the scenario she was describing to me was a classic example of the difference between our reactive and focused attention systems.
Digital distractions and your child’s reactive attention system
The brain is equipped with two different attention systems. Our reactive attention system is located deep within our brain. Located in the “emotional center,” reactive attention is automatic, instinctive and helps us focus our attention when something is moving or very stimulating in our environment. This was a very handy thing for our ancestors who needed to be vigilant to potential dangers in the environment!
Our focused attention system 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 something. Unlike reactive attention, focused attention is not automatic and is only developed with a fair amount of practice.
The reactive attention systems of kids like Jeremy who spend a lot of time online are like well oiled machines. Unfortunately for some kids, this comes at the expense of focused attention. A growing body of research reinforces Jeremy’s experience. A study tracking 3,000 children in Singapore over three years found that those who spent more time playing video games subsequently had more attention problems. This relationship held even when controlling for earlier attention problems, sex, age, race, and socioeconomic status.
“In most video games or with most screen media, there is constant flickering of light which forces an orienting response,” notes Dr. Douglas Gentile, lead investigator. “There are also sound effects and noises, and you need to attend to them, too. I think of these as crutches for attention—they support your attention so you don’t have to work hard to attend.”
Homework requires focused attention
While homework and learning should be engaging and fun much of the time, it still requires a great deal of focused attention. As opposed to video games, even the best teacher cannot make multiplication tables or word rhyming whiz across the classroom with sound effects, explode into a dozen stars, and come with the reward of extra power or more points. Nor should they have to! Students need practice focusing even in the absence of constant external stimulation and reward. They need focused attention to excel in both school and in life.
After sharing this information with Eleanor I noted, “It sounds to me like Jeremy had a very robust reactive attention system and an under-exercised focused attention system. He’s not alone! Kids don’t have as many opportunities today to practice focused attention.”
We concluded our conversation with some ideas and strategies for improving attention skills in little kids and with studying teens. Eleanor was excited to bring this information back to her husband and Jeremy’s teacher. It was all starting to make a little more sense.
Digital distractions rob the brain of practice focusing attention
I do many workshops with teachers throughout the year and everywhere I go I have started asking them the same questions “How many of you have been teaching for more than 10 years?” Usually three quarters of the hands go up. “This next question is for you. How many think it is more difficult to get and keep students’ attention today than it was ten years ago?” Usually ever hand goes up in the air.
Many of the traditional ways that children build focused attention have disappeared. In place of the license plate game on family road trips, each child in the car has their own DVD player and iPhone. Instead of a few blocks and balls, babies are inundated with whirring, buzzing, and twirling gadgets. There is nothing inherently wrong with these tools and toys, its just that too many digital distractions rob kids of the opportunity to strengthen focused attention.
All of this isn’t to say that we don’t need to re-imagine 21st century schools and classrooms and find new ways to engage students hearts and minds in learning. Focused attention isn’t simply about priming kids for routine, boring tasks. On the contrary, it is a necessary ingredient for reflection, synthesis, and critical analysis. Kids who strengthen their focused attention have a big advantage over those who don’t.