Be the Executive-in-Charge over your Child’s Executive Functions
Executive functions are critical to all humans and include the abilities to make good decisions, to reason about situations and issues, to withhold impulsive and risky behaviors, and to make plans for future events are extremely important for success in the classroom, on the playground, and in social settings. Vast amounts of scientific research suggest that you should be concerned about your child’s executive functions as they figure prominently in your child’s skill at paying attention, holding information in memory, inhibiting inappropriate responses, and being mentally flexible.
As your child’s brain develops, these functions grow and mature but at the same time they may be affected by how much your child uses modern personal technology such as phones, tablet computers, and video games. The front part of our brain—right behind our foreheads—is where the brain’s circuits for carrying out these functions is located. This part of the brain is appropriately named, the frontal lobes, often called the prefrontal cortex. Of all of the areas of the brain that are responsible for thinking and memory, the frontal lobes develop the most slowly, taking 25 to 30 years to mature, well after puberty. The right environment for frontal lobe development in a technology-rich environment includes non-digital activities that include unstructured and social play, and parent-child interactions that involve thoughtful feedback from the parents, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Even in the fully matured brain of an adult, executive functions are limited in what they can do. At best, our executive functions can focus on a few objects at a time, manage one task at a time, and hold only about seven items in immediate memory. Not evolved enough to handle the demands of contemporary everyday life, one of us has described modern humans as “ancient brains in a high-tech world.” Nevertheless, it’s critical for parents to create the right environment for coaxing the slowly developing frontal lobe into its best possible outcome.
One of the concerns of many researchers is that everyday technology devices distract children during key tasks such as reading, studying, and doing homework. In one study from our lab we found that middle school, high school and college students attended to their studies for only 9 minutes out of a possible 15-minute study period where they were asked to study something “very important” and knew they were being observed. Research from other labs has shown that children, adolescents and college students are able to focus for only 3-to-5 minutes before either being distracted by alerts and notifications or self-distracting, usually to check some form of communication such as email, texts or social media.
Research shows that executive functions are perhaps being trained to process information in a shallow, unfocused way due to the distractions inherent in mobile phones, tablets and computers. Scientists refer to this style of processing information as “breadth-biased,” meaning that one’s focus of attention is rapidly moving from one task or topic to another, and not remaining on any one task long enough to allow for deep, meaningful processing and understanding. This can be catastrophic for school learning and other situations including social relationships and the ability to let one’s mind wander, an essential action for allowing the brain to make richer, unique connections.
Executive functions not only affect young children’s performance, but also behaviors related to adolescents and young adults (i.e., college students). In adolescents, the executive functions affect the kinds of risky behaviors that occur online and offline. In one study that we conducted in our laboratory, adolescents and young adults (defined as 13 years old or older) who had poor executive functions were more likely to respond to online messages from strangers and to post personal information online. Other studies of teens and young adults show that poor executive functions predict poor sleeping habit and reduced school performance. For example, in another study from our laboratory, we found that having poor executive functions predicted sleep problems in college students, partially because those students place their phones close to them while they sleep and then wake up in the middle of the night to use their technological devices which negatively impacts their natural sleep cycles. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that all technology be removed from the bedroom one hour prior to going to sleep. Getting good night’s sleep is critical for learning and school performance.
Here are some simple takeaways for parents when it comes to maintaining a healthy environment for development of executive functions:
- Turn off the television when your child is studying or doing schoolwork.
- Encourage your child to avoid opening other windows on the computer screen while studying or doing schoolwork.
- Let your child take “tech breaks” during which he or she can use their devices as much as they want. Ideally, start with one-minute tech breaks followed by 15 minutes of schoolwork and then gradually increase the schoolwork time to 30 minutes or more.
- When possible, opt for the print version of a textbook instead of the electronic version.
- Monitor and set rules for how much screen time your child gets. A handy rule of thumb is no more than 30 minutes of technology time at one sitting for children followed by at least two hours of free play or social interaction. For preteens and teens the time using technology can be as much as 90 minutes with at least 10-20 minute breaks between sessions.
- Strongly encourage and support physical or social activities during breaks from schoolwork.
- Have frequent discussions with your child about why it’s important to focus and not get distracted.
About the Authors:
L. Mark Carrier, Ph.D., a professor at California State University Dominguez Hills, is a researcher, writer, and speaker in the field of the psychology of technology. He is a co-founder of the George Marsh Applied Cognition Laboratory where he collaborates on psychological and neuroscientific studies of how technology affects people. He's studied differences in offline and online behavior, how thinking and technology interact, distraction and multitasking, social media, and culture and technology. He's published numerous scientific research articles and co-authored and co-edited several books. Dr. Carrier currently is writing a reference book about the psychology and neuroscience of technology for young adults. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D. is a Professor Emeritus at California State University, Dominguez Hills. He is recognized an international expert in the "psychology of technology" and has published seven beaks on the impact of technology. His latest books include The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World (MIT Press, 2017 with co-author Adam Gazzaley, MD, Ph.D.) and iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology and Overcoming its Hold on Us (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012 with co-authors Nancy A. Cheever, Ph.D. and L. Mark Carrier, Ph.D.). He can be reached through his website: DrLarryRosen.com.
Carrier, L. M., Black, V., Vasquez, L., Miller, A., & Rosen, L. D. (2015). Executive function in risky online behaviors by adolescents and young adults. In Rosen, L., Cheever, N. A., & Carrier, L. M. (Eds.), Handbook of psychology, technology and society. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.
Carrier, L. M., Cheever, N. A., Rosen, L. R., Benitez, S., & Chang, J. (2009). Multitasking across generations: Multitasking choices and difficulty ratings in three generations of Americans. Computers in Human Behavior, 25, 483-489.
Carrier, L. M., Rosen, L. D., Cheever, N. A., & Lim, A. F. (2015). Causes, effects, and practicalities of everyday multitasking. Developmental Review, 35, 64-78.
Gazzaley, A., & Rosen, L. D. (2016). The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Rosen, L.D., Carrier, L.M., & Cheever, N.A. (2013). Facebook and texting made me do it: Media-induced task-switching while studying. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(3), 948-958.
Rosen, L., Carrier, L. M., Miller, A., Rokkum, J., & Ruiz, A. (2016). Sleeping with technology: Cognitive, affective, and technology usage predictors of sleep problems among college students. Sleep Health, 2, 49-56.
Uncapher, M. R., Lin, L., Rosen, L.D., Kirkorian, H. L., Baron, N. S., Bailey, K., Cantor, J., Strayer, D. L., Anderson, D. R., Parsons, T., & Wagner, A. (2017; accepted for publication). Media Multitasking is Associated with Cognitive, Psychological, Neural, and Learning Differences. Pediatrics Special Issue: Children, Adolescents and Screens: What We Know and What We Need To Learn.