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Ebb and Flow

Are we raising generation distracted?

In our fast-paced, attention challenged society, young people in particular may be foregoing quality for quantity, unwittingly robbing themselves of significant growth opportunities.

Perhaps nowhere is this more pronounced than in use of technology. A 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) study showed that 8- to 18-year-olds devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes to using entertainment media across a typical day, or more than 53 hours a week. When “multitasking” is factored in, they actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media content into those 7½ hours (KFF, 2010).

And those numbers appear to be growing.

What technology is most prevalent? According to a 2013 report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, most of that online-ness comes via smartphones (Madden et al, 2013).

Pew and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University report that smartphone adoption among American teens has increased substantially and that mobile access to the Internet is pervasive.

Here’s how the numbers break down.

  • 78% of teens now have a cell phone, and almost half (47%) of those own smartphones. That translates into 37% of all teens who have smartphones, up from just 23% in 2011.
  • One in four teens (23%) has a tablet computer, a level comparable to the general adult population.

In addition, the data reveal that nine in ten teens (93%) have a computer or have access to one at home (Madden et al, 2013).

While there are clear advantages to the uptick in technology, is it possible we’re raising Generation Distracted?

According to a TIME magazine story, “Wired for Distraction: Kids and Social Media” (Conley, 2011), we very well may be. It reported on what might now be considered an epidemic of “continuous partial attention,” moving the conversation away from what our kids are viewing to how often they’re viewing it—and the attendant lack of focus that may ensue.

The article cites a 2006 UCLA study that found multitaskers and focused learners actually use different parts of their brains when absorbing the same material. “Multitaskers fire up their striatum, which encodes the learning more like habit, or what's known as procedural memory. Meanwhile, those who were allowed to focus on the task without distraction relied on the hippocampus, which is at the heart of the declarative memory circuit that comes into play, say, in math class when you need to apply abstract rules to novel problems” (Conley, 2011).

Uh huh.

Translation? It appears that young people who focus are more adept at applying knowledge more broadly than are their distracted peers.

It’s no wonder that Taiwanese lawmakers recently passed the “Child and Youth Welfare and Protection Act,” which requires parents of children under the age of 18 to monitor their screen time (Locker, 2015).

Back here in the United States, there is an emerging consensus that what’s driving young people (and their parents) to distraction is a sense of having to do it all, according to author and speaker Ana Homayoun. In her presentations, she advises helping kids “dial it back” by praising effort, focus and progress—not perfection (Homayoun, 2015).

Similar alarms were sounded in a 2011 Independent School magazine article, “Can Teens Really Do It All? Techo-Multitasking, Learning and Performance.” It cautions, “Many adults and students today think of themselves as excellent multitaskers—switching from task to task or from task to play in a nanosecond. Yet the pings and tweets our devices emit interrupt us in ways that are more problematic than we think. One of the powerful myths in our culture today is that multitasking is efficient for work or for learning” (Bradley, 2011).

According to the article, the outfall of multitasking—maybe especially for teens whose cognitive self-regulation apparatus is not yet fully formed—includes decreases in executive functioning (such as prioritizing and valuing information), ability to focus on complex tasks, and long-term memory. It also reports an increase in stress.

On this last point, it is notable that the 2013 annual survey of stress by the American Psychological Association (APA, 2014) revealed that teens are experiencing levels of stress on par with, and in some cases exceeding, adults’. And during the school year, young people report that stress levels far exceed what they themselves believe to be healthy.

Worse are the associated feelings of being overwhelmed (31 percent), depressed or sad (30 percent) and fatigued or tired (36 percent). Additional concerns can be found in teen reports of lack of sleep, little exercise and skipping meals as a result of stress (APA, 2014).

An update of that study released this month (APA, 2015) revealed that “millennials are more likely than other generations to say:

  • Their stress has increased in the past year, and
  • They have felt a sense of loneliness or isolation due to stress in the past month.”

Other research links teenage stress to underage drinking, other drug use and early intimate sexual behavior. And, ironically, those self-remediating behaviors may ultimately contribute to higher stress levels (Wallace, 2008).

What is the panacea to all this technology-induced stress and ebbing of attention? In a word, flow.

Flow, defined as a state of complete immersion and championed by purveyors of positive psychology such as Martin Seligman, leads to increased positive affect, performance and commitment to long-term, meaningful goals.

According to Pursuit of (2015), “If we are actively involved in trying to reach a goal, or an activity that is challenging but well suited to our skills, we experience a joyful state called ‘flow.’”

Also significant is the link between flow and creativity, increasingly cited by employers as a required skill for the 21st century workforce. In his article “Flow States and Creativity,” Steven Kotler says that creativity “tops nearly every Twenty First Century Skills list ever made” and argues that encouraging flow sidesteps the problem of not knowing how to teach creativity.

If the end game is preparing young people for eventual success in the workforce, what does flow mean from a parenting and education perspective? Kotler says that, given the neurobiological processes associated with flow, we can “train up” young people’s ability to find it and “neurobiology takes care of the rest” (Kotler, 2014).

For his part, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has identified nine elements that, in combination, create the necessary conditions for flow (This Emotional Life, 2009).

  1. Clear goals every step of the way—you know exactly what to do next
  2. Immediate feedback—when you’re in flow, you can tell how well you’re doing
  3. Balance between challenge and skill—the task is not so easy that you get bored, but you have enough mastery to be engaged and successful
  4. Action and awareness merge—you’re concentrating completely on what you’re doing
  5. Distractions fade away—you’re so absorbed in the activity that you’re not aware of other things
  6. There is no worry of failure—you’re too involved to worry about failing; you know what to do and just do it
  7. Self-consciousness disappears—you’re not thinking about yourself or protecting your ego because you’re too wrapped up in the task at hand
  8. Time flies—you may look up after being in a state of flow surprised at how much time has gone by
  9. The activity is meaningful for its own sake, rather than as a means to an end

Less ebb and more flow, just what the doctor (or parent, educator or psychologist) ordered.

Stephen Gray Wallace is president and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing positive youth outcomes and reducing risk. He has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor and serves as senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association and a parenting expert at and NBCUniversal’s For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit

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Bradley, K. (2011). Can teens really do it all? Techno-multitasking, learning and performance. Summer 2011. Independent School Magazine.… (23 Feb. 2015).

Conley, D. (2011). Wired for distraction: kids and social media. March 19, 2011. TIME.,9171,2048363,00.html (23 Feb. 2015).

Homayoun, A. (2015). Ana Homayoun is a noted teen and millennial expert, author, speaker and educator. (23 Feb. 2015).

Kaiser Family Foundation. (2010). Daily media use among children and teens up dramatically from five years ago. January 20, 2010. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.… (23 Feb. 2015).

Kotler, S. (2014). Flow states and creativity: can you train people to be more creative?. February 25, 2014. Psychology Today.… (23 Feb. 2015).

Locker, M. (2015). This place just made it illegal to give kids too much screen time. January 26, 2015. TIME.… (23 Feb. 2015).

Madden, M., Lenhart, A., Duggan, M., Cortesi, S. and U. Gasser. (2013). Teens and technology 2013. Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. Pew Research Center and Berkman Center for Internet & Technology at Harvard University. March 13, 2013.… (23 Feb. 2015).

Pursuit of Happiness, Inc. (2015a). Martin Seligman. The Pursuit of Happiness. Bringing the Science of Happiness to Life. 2015.… (23 Feb. 2015).

Pursuit of Happiness, Inc. (2015b). Flow. The Pursuit of Happiness. Bringing the Science of Happiness to Life. 2015.… (23 Feb. 2015).

Rideout, V., Foehr, U. and D. Roberts. (2010). Generation M2: media in the lives of 8- to 18-year-olds. A Kaiser Family Foundation Study. January 2010. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. (23 Feb. 2015).

This Emotional Life. (2009). Flow. Have you ever been “in the zone?” NOVA/WGBH Science Unit and Vulcan Productions, Inc.. 2009. (23 Feb. 2015).

Wallace, S. (2008). Reality gap: alcohol, drugs and sex – what parents don’t know and teens aren’t telling. New York: Union Square Press/Sterling Publishing. 2008.

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