Have you considered how much the younger generation interacts with social media now days? How about the affect it may have on you as an adult? TIME magazine had an article about just that last week titled Wired for Distraction?. In the article Dalton Conley lamented the possibility that the present digital lives of children are transforming their brains, changing them from how our own brains evolved without so much digital interaction.
A Kaiser Family Foundation report last year found children ages 8-18 averaged 7 hours and 38 minutes a day using entertainment media. People may think the ability to digitally interact (ie texting, twitter, facebook, etc) while engaging in some other task simultaneously may increase one’s ability to multitask. Former Microsoft executive Linda Stone sees it differently; coining the term continuous partial attention. On her online blog she describes the difference between multitasking and continuous partial attention:
“Continuous partial attention and multi-tasking are two different attention strategies, motivated by different impulses. When we multi-task, we are motivated by a desire to be more productive and more efficient. Each activity has the same priority – we eat lunch AND file papers. We stir the soup AND talk on the phone. With simple multi-tasking, one or more activities is somewhat automatic or routine, like eating lunch or stirring soup. That activity is then paired with another activity that is automatic, or with an activity that requires cognition, like writing an email or talking on the phone. At the core of simple multi-tasking is a desire to be more productive. We multi-task to CREATE more opportunity for ourselves –time to DO more and time to RELAX more.
In the case of continuous partial attention, we’re motivated by a desire not to miss anything. We’re engaged in two activities that both demand cognition. We’re talking on the phone and driving. We’re writing an email and participating in a conference call. We’re carrying on a conversation at dinner and texting under the table on the Blackberry or iPhone.
Continuous partial attention involves a kind of vigilance that is not characteristic of multi-tasking. With cpa, we feel most alive when we’re connected, plugged in, and in the know. We constantly SCAN for opportunities – activities or people – in any given moment. With every opportunity we ask, “What can I gain here?”…In this state of always-on crisis, our adrenalized “fight or flight” mechanism kicks in.”
What’s the problem with always being in crisis mode? When we’re consistently overstimulated we get an excess release of norepinephrine and cortisol. Cortisol can attach itself to any receptor site, thus leaving little room for the attachment of dopamine and seratonin, the hormones that make us feel calm and happy. As a result, we’re left feeling hyped up and restless, with no real interpersonal fulfillment.
To compound the issue, as stated in TIME, a 2009 study found that when extraneous information was presented, participants who did a lot of media multitasking performed worse on a test than those who did little to none because the heavy media users were more sensitive to distracting stimuli. In 2006 UCLA scientists showed that media multitaskers use their striatum to encode learning, while those less distracted relied on their hippocampus. In the end, those less distracted could utilize their new skill or knowledge broadly while the multitaskers could not.
As for our children, continuous use of media after school results in less time alone, and more time focused on others and the “gossip” that is so thick in high schools. Some believe that less time alone as an adolescent/teenager allows less time for contemplation and personal development into a profound sense of self. And to top things off, kids seem to stay up later, extending that subconscious desire not to “miss out” into time that should be spent getting a good nights sleep. Less sleep equals less focus during the day, and alas!, the cycle repeats itself.
So what’s the solution? Perhaps turn off the phone, computer and TV and learn to be in a quiet space, allowing your body time to cool off from the “fight or flight” responses throughout the day. And maybe have your children participate in this time with you. It’s a good lesson, one that will probably be needed even more drastically as technology continues to expand exponentially.