The Adolescent Brain and Multitasking

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Next week is Thanksgiving Break. Woo-hoo! The break is much needed. I’m looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner, maybe some hiking, and lots of time with family. That means I get a whole straight 9 days to be with my teenage son. Don’t get me wrong, I love him! But I thought I’d prep a bit, and so this past week, I reached for my copy of The Teenage Brain and continued reading where I left off several weeks ago. Fascinating stuff! In fact, it serves as an excellent follow-up to my last post.

This particular chapter outlined the development of the brain–specifically, how the different lobes of the brain connect with one another (turns out, it’s from back to front) and how undeveloped parts of the brain create “issues” for teenagers. Fortunately, the author does not focus strictly on the science of the brain, but also provides several real applications of this science that may help us to understand our teenagers better. Two of the author’s points particularly caught my attention.

  1. After sharing a story about a tragic accident involving an intoxicated teenager who had drowned, the author suggests that parents shouldn’t ignore these circumstances or write them off as unusual cases. Rather, parents “have to be proactive. You have to stuff their minds with real stories, real consequences, … over dinner, after soccer practice, before music lessons, and, yes, even when they complain they’ve heard it all before. You have to remind them: These things can happen anytime, and there are many different situations that can get them into trouble and that can end badly” (p. 39). This advice doesn’t just apply to drinking and swimming, but also includes the dangers of recreational drug use, vaping (yeah, yeah–I can feel the teenagers rolling their eyes at that one, but I assure you, there are some serious dangers), texting while driving, etc…
  2. After putting teenagers behind the wheel and then confronting them with a variety of distractions (sounds like a fun research project), we discover that “Multitasking is not only a myth but a dangerous one, especially when it comes to the teenage brain. … researchers have shown that the ability to successfully switch attention among multiple tasks is still developing through the teenage years” (p. 42). And the myth that this generation of teenagers is better at multitasking (because of the constant stream of stimuli that they have supposedly “learned” to live with) has been debunked by the University of Missouri. In fact, you don’t have to have the tv on, while you are listening to music, texting a friend, and trying to memorize terms for your next test. Simply listening to music while you study (or drive) can pose a challenge to the teenage brain.

I’m not sure how to feel about all of this. Not because I’ll be spending so much time with my son these next 10 days, but because he turns 15 in about 3 weeks. And we all know what that means…

Cheers!

(And best wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!)

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Jensen, F. E., & Nutt, A. E. (2016). The teenage brain: a neuroscientists survival guide to raising adolescents and young adults. New York: London.

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A time and a place

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I am going to be brief this week. …not because I don’t have much that I want to say, but because I do not want to belabor the point: for many things in life, there is a time and a place, but school is NOT the right time or the right place. I offer this reminder primarily for our students, but also for parents who help them to remain accountable.

For instance, there is a time and place for kissing and hugging (and even the “stuff” that kissing and hugging might lead to). But school is not the time or the place. That is not to say that it is wrong to kiss or inappropriate to hug somebody. However, we must consider the right time and the right place for such activities.

Likewise, as a family you will need to discuss whether or not there is a right time or a right place for drinking alcohol. Regardless of what you may decide or where you may land on the issue, school is NOT the right time or place.

As a family, you will need to discuss and determine your viewpoint on the use of drugs (illicit, recreational, or otherwise). But I assure you: school is NOT the time or the place.

(And here is the big one right now…) As a family, you will need to decide how you feel about the use of tobacco products–particularly when it comes to vape pens. But again: school is NOT the time or the place.

As for politics…well that’s a tough one. We’re a classical high school that encourages thought and Socratic discussion. When it comes to politics, let’s agree to disagree when needed but that we will always play nicely. 🙂

Cheers!

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Cell Phone Addiction – It’s Just the Tip of the Iceberg…

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So as I’m strolling through the lunch room today, just chatting with students, I got to celebrate a birthday with a student, I discussed driving with some sophomores (including the importance of learning how to back up!), and I was asked by one student, “When does cell phone use become an addiction?” He argued that some people are required to use phones all the time (“maybe as part of their jobs”)–and wanted to know if I would consider that to be an addiction.

It was an interesting question to me, because I found myself periodically on my phone this past week as I was out in the wilderness trying to disconnect and enjoy some downtime. I couldn’t allow myself to stop thinking about all that might be happening back at school, and I found that the desire to stay informed by way of my cell phone was at times (dare I say) irresistible.

So I answered the question by explaining that addiction is not necessarily about the use of something, but rather about our ability to control the use (or non-use) of that particular item. It’s not wrong to watch TV, but can I just watch for a half hour or do I find myself getting dragged in to watching for hours at a time? It’s not wrong to eat (in fact, it’s quite necessary), but am I unable to control the times that I eat, the amount that I eat, and/or the types of food that I consume? Likewise, cell phones can be useful tools. But do I constantly find myself being sucked into text messages, snapchats, apps, games, email, etc… and unable to step away and engage in other healthy, quality activities?

Interestingly, as I was reading Irresistible this week, the author made the same point, noting that cell phones are only part of the technology problem. Likewise, games can be problematic–40% of people who play Worlds of Warcraft develop an addiction (p. 17)–and something as insignificant as a Fitbit can easily addict us to the endorphin high that we get from reaching 10,000 steps. … and then 11,000 steps, then 12,000 steps, then… (p. 18).

Just something to think about: it may not be your Smartphone that is the problem. Is there some other form of technology that has taken hold in your life and is driving you to do things you wouldn’t normally consider doing (like waking up at 3:00am to play WoW for 4 hours before school/work, or drinking coffee at 9:00pm to get the extra kick you need to walk 4 more miles so you can hit 20,000 steps for the day)? Maybe it’s Fantasy Football or the next episode of Game of Thrones that you haven’t watched yet (or the need to check emails while you’re sitting quietly under a cedar tree in western CO waiting for a bull elk to emerge into the meadow). Is there some form of technology in your life that has become your addiction but you just haven’t realized (or admitted) it yet?

Cheers!

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Alter, Adam. (2018). Irresistible The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Penguin Group USA.

Bonus Article (long but thought-provoking): Our Minds Can Be Hijacked–The Tech Insiders Who Fear a Smartphone Dystopia

Cell Phone Addiction – Cognitive Load and GPA

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So last night I picked up Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked, and I continued reading in chapter 1. I had only read three pages before I had about seven different ideas I wanted to write about. But there was one in particular that really jumped off the pages to me. It happened to be connected to some research that I shared a couple of weeks ago. Let me refresh your memory:

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Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity

Interestingly, just a couple of days after I’d written that first post on cell phone addiction, I came across another article in which the researchers had chosen to investigate the impact of multitasking on student GPA. That particular piece concluded that students are “increasingly engaging in multitasking” and that “using Facebook and texting while doing schoolwork were negatively associated with overall college GPA. Engaging in Facebook use or texting while trying to complete schoolwork may tax students’ capacity for cognitive processing and preclude deeper learning” (Junco & Cotten, 2012, p. 505).

So then, as I am reading last night, I can’t help but be intrigued (and a little concerned) by the statistics that indicate the average smart phone user spends 3 hours per day on their screen–that’s 11 years of our lives spent looking at smart phones (Alter, 2018)! But here is what really concerns me: it isn’t the screen-time that’s the problem–the mere presence of the phone creates issues.

A study conducted in 2013 paired strangers together in a room with instructions to get to know each other by discussing an interesting event that had happened in their lives. In each room, an item was present on the table: either a cell phone or paper notebook. “Those who grew acquainted in the presence of the smartphone struggled to connect. They described the relationships that formed as lower in quality, and their partners as less empathetic and trustworthy. Phones are disruptive by their mere existence, even when they aren’t in active use. They’re distracting because they remind us of the world beyond the immediate conversation, and the only solution, the researchers wrote, is to remove them completely” (Alter, p. 16).

Now, I can’t say for sure what is meant by “remove them completely” (you know what my vote would be), but I assume that they mean removed from the room. Either way, the point is clear: although smart phones can be utilized for learning, they do not mix well with studying, cognitive processing, and GPA.

As a school and as parents, we want our students to be able to study well and efficiently. We don’t want them spending 4 hours preparing for a test, when 1 hour would have been sufficient. We don’t want our students taking days to write an essay that they could crank out in about 3 hours. We don’t want our kids believing that they’ve memorized the definitions for class or that they can solve quadratic equations when in actuality they’ve deceived themselves because they were distracted.

We do want our students to be as prepared as possible for tests and to write the best possible essays. We do want our students to have a solid GPA. We do want our students to effectively and efficiently manage study time. We do want our kids to maximize their cognitive load by ensuring they have an environment free from distractions. And it turns out that the distractions aren’t other students, the family dog, or the pretty fall colors outside the window, it’s the cell phone on the table next to them.

Cheers!

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Alter, Adam. (2018). Irresistible The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Penguin Group USA.

Junco, R., & Cotten, S. R. (2012). No A 4 U: The relationship between multitasking and academic performance. Computers & Education,59(2), 505-514. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2011.12.023

The Adolescent Brain and Stress

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Isn’t it interesting how people respond to stress in very different ways? Consider, for instance, how different personalities respond to stress. Both my wife and I are educators and spend most of our day interacting with others. Both my wife and I experience stress in a variety of ways throughout the day. And both my wife and I come home needing to recharge our batteries and gain back some of the mental energy we’ve lost throughout the day. But, unlike my wife, I need to regain my mental energy with a little peace and quiet. I don’t particularly want to engage in conversation or chat through my day–I want to just think. My wife, on the other hand, likes to recharge her batteries by way of conversation and lots of questions. As you can imagine, that can create an interesting dynamic at times (and periodically some frustration between us).

Similarly, we parents often experience “interesting dynamics” and “periodic frustration” with our adolescents. These interactions often leave us wondering why they are being so moody, getting upset, speaking rudely, or becoming withdrawn. Historically, we’ve concluded that their hormones are to blame and things will improve when they are more “chemically balanced” at the end of adolescence. And while there is some truth to that (Jensen, 2016), it is not the complete story.

It turns out “that teenagers don’t have higher hormone levels than young adults” (p. 21). However, they are still learning how to respond to hormones. In the last decade, research has begun to suggest that what makes it so difficult to manage their responses is stress. We know that teenagers have always experienced some degree of stress in their lives, but let’s face it: the stress they experience now is rather unprecedented. Home, school, peers, and parents have always been common sources of stress, but the exponential increase in media, internet, and technology is a new source of stress that bombards our teenagers (with consequences that we still know little about). But I slightly digress. …more on technology in another post.

The problem with stress is that our body’s natural coping mechanism which helps to reduce anxiety, may not have the same effect on the teenage brain as it does on adults. “In an adult, [THP] acts like a tranquilizer in the brain and produces a calming effect about a half hour after the anxiety-producing event.” But in adolescents, it appears that THP may be “ineffective in inhibiting anxiety. So anxiety begets anxiety even more so in teens” (p. 22).

Well that’s good news… Okay, not really. But it might not be bad news either. As a parent (and as a principal), I think my take-away is to not only be more patient with adolescent “craziness,” but also to more carefully monitor stress levels–paying particular attention to how many stress-inducing, anxiety-producing activities my son is engaged in. If my brain is able to deal with anxiety more effectively than his, then perhaps it is incumbent upon me to both teach him how to manage stress/anxiety and to periodically help shoulder some of that burden on his behalf. It won’t always be easy, but at least it gives me a small degree of influence (dare I say: control) in the midst of the craziness. It’s better than just chalking it up to “hormones.”

Cheers!

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Jensen, F. E., & Nutt, A. E. (2016). The teenage brain: a neuroscientists survival guide to raising adolescents and young adults. New York: London.

The Adolescent Brain

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Have you ever observed one of your child’s behaviors and asked, “What was s/he thinking???” Maybe I’m asking the wrong question… How many times a day do you ask yourself that? As the parent of a 14-year-old young man (and the principal of 340 adolescents), I have to admit that I can’t count high enough (and I have a degree in mathematics!).

In addition to Irresistible–The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked, I recently started reading a second book: The Teenage Brain–A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults. Interesting stuff so far…

I’ve always believed (as I’m sure most of us have) that “Teens are impulsive and emotional because of surging hormones; teens are rebellious and oppositional because they want to be difficult and different; and if teenagers occasionally drink too much alcohol without their parent’s consent, well, their brains are resilient, so they’ll certainly rebound without suffering any permanent effects” (Jensen, 2016, p. 4). Actually, I never really bought the one about drinking, but the other two sound about right, don’t they?

And that is the very first lesson of the text: it’s not true. Their IQ is not set, their talents and abilities are far from written in stone, their wiring is not the same as an adult, and their brains are still quite vulnerable. And yet, there are also some unique advantages to having an adolescent brain. (I can’t imagine what those might be…)

Throughout the course of the year, as we explore the pages of Irresistible together, I will also periodically report on my progress as I read The Teenage Brain. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take all the help I can get.

Cheers!

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Jensen, F. E., & Nutt, A. E. (2016). The teenage brain: a neuroscientists survival guide to raising adolescents and young adults. New York: London.

Cell Phone Addiction

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Last week I happened to be watching the news and they reported that a recent study discovered teenagers’ cell phones have 10 times the bacteria of a toilet seat! Think about that next time you put a cell phone to your face.

As disgusting as that is, I think we may want to consider a more disturbing fact regarding our teens’ cell phone usage: teens are cell phone addicts.

I recently began reading Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked, by Adam Alter. I just started–I haven’t even gotten to the parts about the biology of addiction, the ingredients of addiction, or the future of behavioral addiction, and I’m already concerned.

The front cover has an endorsement from Malcolm Gladwell that reads, “As if to prove his point, Adam Alter has written a truly addictive book about the rise of addiction. Irresistible is a fascinating and much needed exploration of one of the most troubling phenomena of modern times” (Alter, p. 0).

The first few pages begin to explore the topic, noting that tech leaders like Steve Jobs enforce strict technology requirements in their own homes, “following the cardinal rule of drug dealing: never get high on your own supply” (p. 2). Similarly, video game designers refuse to play the games they develop and app developers won’t use the apps they’ve designed.

The first few pages of the text make two things clear:

  1. Our society narrowly defines addiction, limiting the discussion to elicit drug use or alcoholism. Technology can be just as dangerous.
  2. The designers of technology know how susceptible we are to technology addiction, and they work hard to addict us and keep us that way.

Throughout the school year, I am going to revisit the pages of this text and provide updates as I make my way through the chapters. There is much for us to learn as parents and educators.

Before I sign off, I’d like to draw your attention to this interesting research statistic:

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Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity

So if your student comes home and tells you that I’ve been taking cell phones and cracking down lately, you know why. I’m simply protecting their working memory and ensuring they are as focused and engaged as possible. It’s just something to think about next time they go to their bedroom to do homework and take their phone with them…

Cheers!

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Alter, Adam. (2018). Irresistible The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Penguin Group USA.