12 Technology and the Developing Brain

Nadine Bell

nadine.bell@uoit.net

Ontario Tech University

Abstract

This chapter looks at the cumulative impact of technology on student’s brain development in regards to attention, multi-tasking and cognitive load and its subsequent effect on learning. As well, it discusses curriculum implications and classroom applications in hopes to inform and prepare educators to balance the use of technology with its potentially harmful effects. Educators and practitioners are observing increased rates of psychological concerns within the student population such as ADHD, learning difficulties, sensory processing disorders, as well as anxiety and depression (Lynch, 2018). It is theorized that these concerns are associated with the overuse of technology and its direct impact on the developing brain (Digital Responsibility, 2019; Lynch 2018). Technology changes the wiring and pruning of the brain through consistent distraction, encouragement to multi-task and cognitive overload (Taylor, 2012). These aspects have a direct effect on students’ knowledge construction and psychological health. Educators have the opportunity to control the use of technology in the classroom and its related impacts through awareness building, protocols, teaching strategies and promotion of student mindfulness practices.  There are many benefits of technology use in education however educators need to be aware of how to balance the benefits with the potential harms in order to create a safe and healthy environment for student brain development.

Keywords:  brain development, education, executive functioning, technology

Introduction

The use of educational technologies has been widely adopted and has enriched the classroom curriculum by providing students’ access to information while supporting the development of 21st-century skills (Shrivastav & Hiltz, 2013). Students are engaged in its use, with the average student spending in-between 7.5 and 8.5 hours using technology daily (Anderson, 2016). As educators are incorporating more technology inside the classroom and students are spending an exponential amount of time using it outside the classroom, one needs to be aware of the cumulative impacts technology has on today’s young people.

A major impact of technology is its effect on brain development. Educators and practitioners are observing increased rates of psychological concerns such as ADHD, learning difficulties, sensory processing disorders, as well as anxiety and depression (Lynch, 2018). Researchers theorize these psychological concerns are associated with the overuse of technology (Digital Responsibility, 2019; Lynch 2018). Students’ brains are still developing and are malleable, thus technology is influencing how their brain is being wired, in a way that is different than in previous generations. Scans of the brain show that technology use of greater than 5 hours per day was consistent with neurological “pruning” of tracks related to executive functioning (Rowan, n.d.). Rewiring or pruning of the brain creates an imbalance which results in problems in a student’s ability to develop skills in self-regulation, attention, cognitive flexibility and inhibition control (Lynch, 2018). These executive functioning skills are the foundation for academic readiness and success (Center on the Developing Child, 2012).

Despite the benefits, too much technology use is contributing to serious psychological concerns and directly effects learning through the rewiring of the developing brain (Pietila, 2017) . When it comes to technology use in the classroom, educators have the tough task of drawing a line between benefit and harm. This chapter will take a closer look at the impact of technology on the developing brain, specifically in regards to attention, multitasking, and cognitive load, as well as discuss its implications in the classroom.

Background Information

Attention

Attention is the first step in the learning process. We cannot understand, learn or remember what we do not first attend to (Thorne & Thomas, 2009). Technology affects both passive and active attention. Passive attention is an involuntary process influenced by the external environment such as attention to a bright light or sudden noise coming from a smartphone (Thorne & Thomas, 2009). Active attention involves effort and enables students to select what they should and shouldn’t be attending to (Thorne & Thomas, 2009). According to a recent study, after being informed of a task, students’ active attention starts declining at around 2 minutes at which point they began checking text messages and Facebook (Paul Murphy, 2013). At around 15 minutes students had only spent around 65% of their time doing the task assigned (Becker, 2015). The distraction of technology in the classroom has a direct impact on students’ attention.

In addition, the speed of technology has impacted students’ attention span. Dr. Dimitri Christakis, Director for the Center of Child Health, Behavior and Development in Settle shared,

Faster-paced [nature of technology] shows increased risk of attention issues. The brains of children adapt to that speed, so when they’re forced to work in the slower pace of life, they often struggle to pay attention because it’s less stimulating and rewarding. (Lettrick, 2016)

Due to students need for a face-pace environment, teachers feel the need to entertain or even “tap dance”, in order to keep students attention and engagement in traditional forms of learning (Lettrick, 2016).  Attention is the gateway to thinking (Taylor, 2012) and without it, other aspects of thinking are greatly diminished or can’t occur at all. The ability of students’ to learn to focus effectively and consistently lays the foundation for almost all aspects of their growth and is fundamental to the developing brain (Taylor, 2012).

Multi-Tasking

The freedom of multiple technology platforms and devices brings challenges to the developing brain. As a result of technology, the brain is trained at a young age to multitask to such a high degree that it is often incapable of attending to one task or thought at a time (Bhat, 2017). A 2014 study published in the Journal of Early Adolescence looked at the relationship between multitasking and executive function within high school students. Findings showed that teenagers who multitask on social media more frequently reported having more problems with executive function (Baumgartner, Weeda, van der Heijden, & Huizinga, 2014). Multitasking using technology disrupts the ability for a student to focus thus affecting comprehension of information (Lettrick, 2016). It is demonstrated in student achievement levels, as students who multitasking while learning will have a grade approximately 20% lower than a student not multitasking with technology (Sullivan & Thompson, 2013).

The brain cannot do two complex tasks at the same time. As the two tasks compete for the same mental resources (Becker, 2015). With simple tasks, this may be okay but with new, more complex learnings it is nearly impossible. For example, listening to a lecture while texting, or doing homework and being on Facebook—each of these tasks is very demanding, and each of them uses the same area of the brain (Becker, 2015). The brain processes and stores the two streams of information in a less useful way making it difficult to transfer knowledge to new contexts (Becker, 2015). Technology is making it easier for students to multitask in the classroom. This multitasking has a direct effect on knowledge acquisition and the development of executive functioning skills needed for academic success.

Cognitive Load

Students inability to pay attention and constant multi-tasking may lead to cognitive or information overload. Cognitive overload is grounded in cognitive load theory and is defined as “a condition resulting from an excessive amount of information beyond an individual’s capacity” (Shrivastav & Hiltz, 2013).  Multiple or highly stimulating technologies have the potential to overstimulate and max out the capacity of the developing brain. Cognitive overload significantly impacts knowledge construction and puts students at risk of information anxiety which further inhibits learning (Shrivastav & Hiltz, 2013). Dr. Dimitri Christakis stated, “I observe that many of the children I see suffer from sensory overload, lack of restorative sleep, and a hyper-aroused nervous system, regardless of diagnosis—what I call electronic screen syndrome. These children are impulsive, moody, and can’t pay attention” (Becker, 2015). Cognitive overload caused by technology can have a direct effect on the developing brain and impact lifelong learning (Shrivastav & Hiltz, 2013). Luckily, educators are well positioned to balance the benefits and risks of using technology in order to create a supportive environment for students to develop and thrive.

Applications

Attention, multitasking, and cognitive load are interrelated concepts that have a direct effect on the developing brains’ ability to learn and are strongly influenced by the use of technology. Educators have the opportunity to control the use of technology in the classroom and its related impacts through awareness building, protocols, teaching strategies, promotion of student mindfulness practices and curriculum design.  Educators may consider embedding the following measures into the curriculum to support balancing the benefits with the potential harms in order to create a safe and healthy environment for student brain development.

Digital Citizenship

Include concepts of brain development and the impacts of technology when discussing digital citizenship in the classroom. Awareness of brain development can be embedded into the digital etiquette and digital health and wellness components of digital citizenship. As an experiment, try having students’ multi-task using a social media platform while learning a new subject or topic. Have students reflect upon a change in behavior and test scores to bring awareness to the impact.  Bringing awareness of the impacts of technology on learning outcomes and health provides a strong foundation to prevent concerns later on in life.

Technology Protocols

With a background understanding of the impacts of technology on the brain, co-develop a tech-in-class behavior policy with your students. This protocol could include,

Tech breaks.

Checking social media is a compulsive behavior that results in distraction, multi-tasking, and information overload (Becker, 2015). Frequently students feel they are missing out when they are not checking their device. To decrease student anxiety while still providing a supportive learning environment, allow students two minutes to text, check websites, and post. Then the device gets flipped over and the student focuses on the task at hand for another period of time. According to Rosen, overtime students are able to extend their working time to 20, 30, even 45 minutes, rewiring the neurological pathways in the brain (Becker, 2015).

Classroom motte.

Post visual reminders to help students get back on track if distracted by technology. Try, “one thing at a time” for a reminder about multitasking (Lettrick, 2016).

Role model.

Technology protocols aren’t just for students. Educators need to abide by and role model the healthy use of technology. This could include not sending or responding to emails during class time supporting physical presence with students.

Teaching Strategies

It is important to understand that students are generally not trying to be difficult when they are distracted by technology. Students’ develop executive skills at different rates. Some students’ will need more scaffolding than others and may need to re-wire brain pathways that have been strengthened from years of technology and social media use (Lettrick, 2016). Teaching strategies could include,

Balancing.

A primary strategy is limiting technology by balancing it with non-technology activities. This starts with the awareness of how much, often and for what purpose technology is used in lesson plans, including homework assigned. In addition, educators need to be analyzing lessons plans to ensure the filtering of information so students are not overwhelmed with information that would exceed their cognitive capacity (Bhat, 2017). A broader discussion among teachers may need to happen so everyone is aware of more technology-heavy courses or assignments so students are not at risk of being overstimulated or developing cognitive overload among all courses.

Assessments.

Create a technology and executive functioning rubric to show each student where he or she has improved as well as individual goals they could work on with guidance (Lettrick, 2016). Setting short and long term goals helps students develop executive functioning skills and counteracts the need for instant gratification that technology engrains in the developing brain.

Incorporate Mindfulness Practices

Educators can teach students’ mindfulness practices to focus attention and de-stimulate before feelings of information anxiety or cognitive overload occur.  This could include relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and granting permission to use mindfulness mobile applications in the classroom (Bhat, 2017). As simple as it sounds, educators need to teach students how to “slow down” in the fast-paced environment and promote healthy face to face social relationships supporting psychological health and well-being.

Curriculum

Understanding the intersection between technology and brain development is important for curriculum design. It requires educators to reflect upon pedagogy, how students’ brains have already been shaped by technology and students’ engagement with technology inside and outside the classroom (Grushka, Donnelly, & Clement, 2014).  Technology integration frameworks such as the Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge framework can facilitate reflection and inform curriculum planning by identifying and moderating the intersections between content, pedagogy and technology knowledge while taking into consideration outside contexts such as brain development  (Mushra & Koehler, 2006). Curriculum plans should be designed to promote technology scaffolding and provide opportunities for critical reflection (Grushka, Donnelly, & Clement, 2014). The incorporation of technology into the curriculum must be purposeful, intentional and supported by evidence in order to minimize the negative impacts it has student brain development.

Conclusions & Future Recommendations

We are only beginning to understand the impact technology has, and will continue to have, on the developing brain. Further research is needed as technologies continue to change and develop. This evidence must inform educators’ technology practices in the classroom prior to adoption. It is recommended that schools compile and review all technologies used annually, to prompt discussion related to the impact on students’ cognitive and emotional health. Today’s educators have the opportunity to influence technology use by balancing its benefits and harms through appropriate use in the classroom. As technology continues to enrich the curriculum and enhance access to opportunities, student psychological health and brain development must remain the top priority.

References

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Technology and the Curriculum: Summer 2019 by Nadine Bell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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