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The Informed Parent

Does Technology Affect Attention

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Feb. 01, 2010
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Since the time Sesame Street began broadcasting in the late 1960s, some have lamented that its fast, colorful pace would lead to children being unable to focus in classrooms where information presentation is slower.

While there has been no hard evidence until recently, several prominent researchers now believe that some children and adults are, indeed, addicted to digital stimulation. Dr. John Ratey, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, believes that technology is actually rewiring the modern brain to crave stimulation--a condition he calls “acquired attention deficit disorder”.

Dr. Elias Aboujaoude is Assistant Director of the Stanford School of Medicine’s Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Clinic. He said a few studies indicate a link between excessive internet use and attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder in children and some adults. This could impair academic performance and social development.

Reliance on programs or devices like computer spell checks, phone numbers programmed into the telephone, blackberries, and Twitter now do the work that our brains used to do. Ratey and others believe that constant use of such devices actually short-circuits the brain’s ability to process details.

Adoujaoude agrees. He said that as we become more used to sound bites and small bits of information we might lose the ability to analyze things with any depth and nuance.

While our children will need to be able to use electronics, it clearly will be preferable for them to master both ways of thinking. The following suggestions may help parents balance available technology and the ability to slow down and enjoy more in-depth learning.

Daily Exercise

Some research conducted by Dr. Ratey shows that exercise optimizes a child’s ability to learn. Since daily physical education is no longer a part of the curriculum in many schools, giving children the opportunity to run and play hard each day becomes the parents or caregiver’s responsibility. Aim for at least an hour of active exercise and play. Take family bike rides or walks. Play ball. Go to a park with swings, slides and climbing toys. Go to the public swimming pool.

Homework

When children have difficulty focusing on homework, set a timer for 10-minute intervals. When the timer goes off, provide a five-minute break for the child to do a physical activity like jump rope, hop scotch, or taking a run around the yard or down the block. Doing calisthenics or their own version of yoga poses do work. At the end of five minutes, start the timer again for homework.

Time for Reading

Many schools require a certain number of minutes each day for reading outside of school hours. If not, find a daily time for your child to read. For young children, bedtime stories quiet them down for the night as well as expose them to the written word. Older students can benefit from 15 to 20 minutes of reading before bed.

Converse

Find regular time to talk about what happened during the day or about news events. Include problem solving or planning a future activity. If you ask questions during the conversation choose ones that cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no.” Guide children toward formulating their thoughts into a cohesive whole. 

Play Games

Riding in the car is a good time for word games like “I see something that starts with…” The first person looks for something that begins with the letter a. The next person looks for something that begins with b, etc. Many stores carry small games that can be used in the car. Be creative. Avoid having the children wear headphones, play with a laptop, or talk on the cell phone.

At home, play board games or engage in activities that include the whole family. Short games like Candyland can be played in one sitting. Longer games such as Monopoly can be carried over for a few days.

Develop Hobbies

Whether its collecting rocks or taking piano lessons, developing a hobby requires children to slow down, think and invest themselves in the activity.

Busy parents will read these suggestions and think that they do not have time to try them, let alone work them into the daily schedule. Effective parenting takes time and energy. Do what you can. The goal is to get children away from so much time on the computer, sitting in front of the TV, and talking or texting on their cell phone.  

If, in fact, the modern brain is rewiring as a result of excessive time spent with fast-paced technology devices, parents need to be prepared. The old adage “Use it or lose it” seems apt. Give your children a lifestyle that balances using their brain in slower paced activities with the technology that they love so much.




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