There’s a good chance at this very moment your child is scrolling through a feed on their phone. Most teenagers spend 9+ hours a day in front of screens, which includes time while doing their homework. Snap this, share that, like this, post that. The digital age is all-consuming and the attention span of your distracted teen is suffering.
Studies show that many people cannot focus for more than a few minutes at a time. The minute our phones ping, our heads jerk up and we feel compelled to check our phones or watches. This has impacted our productivity and our ability to produce quality work. For our students, this means that their grades, ability to focus, long-term development, and overall potential for success are all negatively impacted. So how do we regain our ability to focus?
The Brain Science of Distraction
The brain (especially the adolescent brain) is triggered by a perceived reward. The more and more we adapt our brain to being rewarded by something, the more and more its neurons are rewired to be attached to that very reward. Psychologists at Johns Hopkins explain in a recent study that behaviors such as texting, social media, and constant notifications trigger the reward system of the brain. Once the brain has linked that behavior to a rewards, it will want it again and again. This is why the average teenager will opt for the reward of their Instagram likes and notifications over focused study time.
Before the digital age, people could sit for a task with a cup of coffee and focus for long chunks of time. They would take breaks, but the impulsive distraction disorder that we have now was not prevalent at all. Studies show that every time we get distracted, we lose between 5-10 minutes of productivity – which can add up to hours everyday.
The long-term impact is immense: Studies show that information that we learn while distracted is quickly forgotten, as the important process of transferring our knowledge from short-term memory to long-term memory, also known as “encoding” doesn’t occur.
The effects can compound overtime; if you don’t control this tendency at a young age, by the time your child reaches high school, they will not be able to crisply recall their math, reading, English, science and other foundational subjects. At that point, many parents consider getting a tutor or someone to teach them the concepts, often thinking it is their current teacher or curriculum that is doing a poor job, when it is really their child’s inability to focus and retain information.
Today’s distractions are addictive
Distractions can include messages, email notifications, social media notifications or simply too many tabs open on the internet.
Would you want your child getting addicted to smoking or drinking? Probably not. Most of us don’t know that just like nicotine in cigarettes, you can become addicted to certain behaviors. According to The Journal of Behavioral Addictions, people can become addicted to behaviors, in fact, many cellphone users show the same symptoms that drug addicts have.
Many use smartphones to improve their mood, and overtime, they need more and more engagement and time on the phone to achieve the same level of enjoyment. A dead phone causes anxiety and panic among many teens, which academics have identified as withdrawal symptoms.
Your child is probably distracted while studying
Many students can no longer focus while studying. According to recent studies, more than 75% of high school students report switching between Facebook, texting, TV, Snapchat, Instagram and email all while studying. Students are unable to focus – and the most distracted students are the ones with the most apps open.
The correlation is so clear that students with fewer distractions consistently perform better academically and achieved higher GPAs compared to their distracted peers. During a 15 minute study period, a student that checks social media even once was reported to consistently have a lower GPA and lower academic performance.
Most students are anxious of “missing out” when it comes to social media, texting, and other notifications. This creates a perpetual cycle of distracted studying, where teenagers are no longer able to focus for more than a few minutes at a time, and thus their cognitive abilities are impacted in the long-term.
4 Ways to Help Your Distracted Teen
One approach is to eliminate everything. If anyone is down to move to a remote cave for a few months out of the year, let us know and we can organize something.
The other approach is to manage what we can in the time we have. There are ways to do this, and it starts with actually accepting that we will get distracted. The way to combat these are by programming in distractions.
1. Programmed distractions
Build a “break time” into their work schedule every hour or hour and a half. That could mean 10 minutes at the end of every hour, or a larger period in the middle of the day.
You want your student to get into their “flow”. The idea of “flow”, also known as the “zone”, is a mental state in which a person completing a task is fully immersed and in a state of energized focus and full involvement. It takes about 15 minutes of concentrated activity to reach your flow state, so each time you get distracted you are farther away from reaching your ability to achieve optimal performance.
Larry Rosen a Psychology professor, in his Harvard Business Review article on Conquering Digital Distraction, suggests shutting off all technology for 15 minutes at a time, and then allowing your student to check their device for about one minute. This isn’t the end goal – it is to start the weaning process. Eventually, your student will be able to focus for an hour or a few hours at a time without needing to check their device – which will dramatically improve their grades and long-term success.
2. Quiet time to unplug
Have a few moments every few hours where you clear out all technology stimuli. Our brains need to be clear and have space to process information. We should try do this at the beginning of the day and the end of the day, and encourage our kids to do this with us as they grow up. Remember, human beings were not created to be exposed to white light for extensive periods of time. Our early ancestors would have much more time in nature, less time sitting down, and more time to clear their heads.
It’s not just about the peace and tranquility you’ll achieve; research has proven that creativity is enhanced when the brain has time to think and process information. When we are bombarded by pictures, news, notifications, deals, videos, shows, and so much more, we lose the ability to relax and process, which will impair creativity in your child.
3. Manage your time
Identify a task that you want to accomplish every 2-3 hours, and carve out time in your calendar for this. This may sound simple but if you keep yourself busy, you’ll have less time to give to distractions.
4. Set an example
It’s important for parents to set the best example for their kids. As they get into high school, you will become increasingly frustrated that your child is always on Snapchat taking pictures with filters instead of focusing on their work. However, if they notice their parents playing around on their phone, always reading the news, always scrolling through their news feed, then they will pick up this habit as well.
While the consequences may not be as significant for an adult, the potential impact our children is far too great.
Photo credit: K. Kendall
Shahryar Abbasi moved to America when he was young, grew up in California and had to figure out the whole high school and college process himself. He went on to graduate from the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business and served as the External Affairs Vice President of UC Berkeley’s student government. He is an experienced speaker, mentor, and coach. He’s the co-founder of The Success Company – an organization that helps students and families cultivate healthy habits, perform better in school, and navigate the difficulties of the college admission process. They’ve helped hundreds of students and families and are continually gathering insights and creating content to help students and parents live their best life.