How easily can you ignore your iPhone, Blackberry, iPod, television, laptop or any other digital device you interact with? What effect do you think constant checking of emails, Facebook, voicemails, texts and instant messages has on your ability to concentrate and process the information you’re learning? It turns out that tuning in may have may hold a bigger grip on us than we’d like to think and that it could seriously affect our ability to focus.
An informal University of Maryland study showed that students who attempted to forgo “media,” including anything on television, a cell phone or computer, for 24 hours used terms associated with drug addiction – like “withdrawal,” “craving,” “anxious” and “jittery” – to describe their difficulty abstaining. Many of the 200 participants failed to avoid media for the entire 24 hours, despite being given a choice of which day of the week to participate. Students in the study reported intense feelings of anxiety at being cut-off from friends and family and information for the short time.
A recent New York Times article investigates the effect of this ubiquitous constant stream of stimuli on young minds. It profiles a high school student whose teachers describe as very smart, but who can’t pry himself away from his computer long enough to finish his assignments. His situation is an increasingly common one. Researchers say that young people’s brains become “more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.”
Major cross-sections of the brain become active during downtime. Periods of rest – a lack of stimulation – is necessary for the brain to synthesize information, make connections between ideas, and “develop the sense of self.” Multitasking using interactive, highly stimulating computers and phones adapts minds to being distracted, rather than to focus. Neuroscientists have performed studies on young people who watch television and play video games after studying at night and found that they both slept more poorly and were less likely to retain their studies than those that didn’t engage in such activities.