Teens, Social Media and the Distracted Mind
Like the adults around them, today’s teens are part of a huge, unplanned social experiment. Over the past two decades we’ve all joined a global, multichannel conversation, available anytime, at the touch of a button. While this level of connectivity offers numerous benefits, like most technological advances it has brought unexpected challenges. Young people now have constant access to a virtual firehose of social, emotional and cognitive stimulus, carefully curated and edited for maximum engagement, and addictive by design.
The high level of digital distraction in which secondary education must now take place poses historically unprecedented challenges for students and faculty alike. Effective learning requires the ability to focus the mind on the task at hand for extended periods of time. It’s hard to achieve that kind of focus in the age of social media. According to a recent study by Common Sense Media, “57% of teens agreed that social media often distracts them when they should be doing their homework”. In some ways, of course, this is the latest iteration of an old problem. Over the last 100 years, each generation of students had to learn to master the art of focusing on their schoolwork in the face of distractions of the latest form of popular media, from comic books to pinball, from late night tv to video games. But the current level of cognitive input to which young people today have access is unprecedented. Many teens report feeling addicted and unable to put down their devices, even when they are with other people.
According to one study, by the Pew Research Center, at least 45% of teens say they are online on a near-constant basis. It’s no accident that they feel so tethered to their devices.
According to one study, by the Pew Research Center, at least 45% of teens say they are online on a near-constant basis. It’s no accident that they feel so tethered to their devices. Drawing from decades of neuroscience research, social media platforms have been specifically engineered to appeal to our natural instincts: to connect with one another (e.g. sharing memes), to monitor our environment (scrolling for the latest posts), to forage for resources (shopping), seek confirmation of our membership in community (soliciting followers and likes), building and maintaining relationships (liking and commenting on the posts of others), and of course the most fundamental of instincts – to seek out and attract potential mates. This predisposes us to return again and again for quick hits of dopamine and serotonin, which our brains produce each time our posts get liked or shared, or we ‘find what we’re looking for’ online, leaving even many adults feeling ‘hooked.’ Teens, whose frontal cortex is still developing, have greater difficulty with self regulation.
Becoming mindful instead of having a mind full of distractions.
Fortunately, we can call upon a set of ancient techniques –now scientifically verified – to help us with this very modern problem. For thousands of years, people have practiced mindfulness meditation, which involves bringing one’s attention to the present moment, and simply bearing witness to what is, without judgement. Sometimes referred to as ‘calm abiding’, it is a simple, straightforward technique, which, when practiced over time, can help improve concentration, develop clarity of mind and improve focus. Mindfulness practice can be compared to physical training: just as the muscles grow stronger with regular workouts, so too can our powers of attention be strengthened through regular practice of mindfulness.
Introducing young people to the basics of mindfulness can help them learn to become more aware, throughout the day, of where they are directing their attention. With training in mindfulness regarding their relationship with digital devices, teens can be taught to take a breath before reacting to online triggers, and to bring awareness to when, why and for how long they engage with their phones. Students can be trained to become conscious of their habits of posting and sharing, and mindful of the ways in which they are contributing to the ongoing stream of social discourse around them. They can be taught to call upon mindfulness techniques to refocus their attention on their academic work after getting lured down a social media rabbit hole, and help them build the powers of concentration that will be essential for them in college and beyond.
The ability to remain calm and centered in the midst of nonstop digital input will increasingly be an essential component of functioning successfully in the academic and business worlds. Providing the next generation of adults with skills they’ll need to thrive in the 21st century must now include training them in how to anchor themselves in the face of the tsunami of stimulus bombarding their brains each day. Our attention is one of the few things over which we truly have choice. It’s also one of our greatest powers. It’s time for us, as educators, to help them learn to harness this great power and use it responsibly.
Gwenyth Jackaway, Ph.D.