The Amazing Power of "Tech Breaks"

Can "Tech Breaks" Help Us Curb Our Obsession With Technology?

Posted May 16, 2011

  • Rats that run mazes over and over show a sequence of electrical activity in the brain. If you give them a "break" their brain continues to show the same activity despite the fact that they are not running the maze.
  • French women over 65 who drank three or more cups of coffee per day did better on memory tests than those who drank one or fewer cups.
  • During wakeful rest periods (including coffee breaks) the hippocampus and neocortex appears to show increased activity, which consolidates learning.
  • Coffee appears to enhance alertness, attentiveness and mood.

So the consensus appears to be that a coffee break is beneficial on a lot of levels because it allows for a rest period that enhances mood and allows our brain time to rest and consolidate what we have done prior to the break.

Today's version of note passing is the text message. According to the Nielsen Company the average teen sends and receives 3,705 text messages per month, which translates to about 10 per waking nonschool hour or about one every 6 minutes. Research has also shown that the majority of teens text in class even though most schools do not allow cell phones to be used during their lessons. How do they do it? From their laps. Research done with standard 10-key telephone keypads has shown that nearly half of all teens can text blindfolded. Research at Wilkes College in Pennsylvania found that more than 90% of college students had sent or received a text in class and nearly two-thirds of the students felt that texting should be allowed in class. Now, add to the mix that a national report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 58% of teens whose school bans cell phones have sent a text during class and 43% send texts at least once a day during class. They simply have to connect.

The same is true in the workplace. Research by Gloria Mark and her colleagues at the University of California, Irvine campus found that computer programmers spent an average of 3 minutes on task before switching and most of the cues to switch came from email and other disruptive electronic communication technologies. Other researchers have found the same when examining other professionals. We simply don't seem to be able to focus for more than a few minutes without facing an interruption and technology seems to be the culprit.

Using functional magnetic resonance tools (fMRI) we are able to get a fairly decent picture of how the brain works. fMRI measures oxygen flow to the brain, which corresponds to greater brain activation and more processing in that local brain area. What goes on in a person's brain while they are working or learning? According to fMRI research, certain areas are activated and then deactivated constantly with much processing happening in the prefrontal cortex which controls attention, interest, motivation and decision-making. It is the latter that is crucial. The prefrontal cortex is the executive controller who juggles the various tasks we perform and helps focus our attention effectively directing the oxygen dance from one brain area to another.

Imagine the brain of our teenager in class.

I have long argued that we are long past changing our children's' distractible behaviors. As I said in an earlier Psychology Today blog post, we "started the fire" and we invented the tools that our children now embrace and carry with them 24/7. The genie is out of the bottle and we cannot force it back inside. Our kids are connected and wired (or wireless) all day and night and it is constantly impinging on their brains.

Since the publication of Rewired I have visit quite a few public and private schools and talked to parents, teachers and students about how to best use and integrate technology into the classroom and the home. I always talk about "tech breaks" as a way of compromising and learning to live with our need to connect and our need to check in with our virtual and real social worlds. Here is how it works. In the classroom, a teacher might lecture for 15 minutes (this time period seems to work well) and tell the students to silence their phones and put them on their desks face down. If they have laptops they are to silence them and close the lid. The students know, in advance, that every 15 minutes, if they do not check their technology, they may have 1 to 2 minutes (depending on the teacher's interest and student behavior) to check in, send texts, do whatever is allowed on campus and then return to the lesson. This has now been piloted informally in many classrooms at schools where I have talked and it works amazingly well! Teachers report that the students are much more attentive during the lecture time. As one teacher told me via email,

My French3 students and I had a blast on Wednesday. The 90-minute class went smoothly and fast. We had 2 cell phone breaks and students were able to go back to business. The next day, some students who had heard about this opportunity asked me if they would also be able to use their cell phone and I said yes. I explained to my classes your research findings and I also talked about procedures and rules. Basically, they were told that after important activities and if they were focused, on-task, and attentive they would use it. Disruption was for example a no cell phone privilege. Like you found out, students want to check their Facebook page every 15 minutes. So they will behave and stay focused if they know they can do that.

I only have anecdotal evidence about "tech breaks" but recently I read about a study that was performed at the University of Copenhagen that confirmed my suspicions. In their study participants were divided into two groups whose main task was to watch a ball being passed among a group of people and count the number of passes. Simple task, but first there was a potential distraction. One group watched a funny video that was presented on their screens while the other group was told that a funny video was available if they clicked a link BUT they were told not to watch it. After 10 minutes - during which the group told they could not watch the video heard the laughter from the group watching the video - both groups watched the main video and counted the passes. Interestingly, the group that were told not to watch the video did worse on counting passes than the group who laughed their way through the video. This is not the only study showing the ramifications of mental distractions on performance. Told to not think of white bears, subjects were worse at solving anagrams than a control group. The Copenhagen research group concluded that perhaps "Internet breaks" would allow office workers to periodically check in with their virtual world and then work more effectively. As James Surowiecki so aptly stated in a recent New Yorker article, "This may sound like a solution straight out of Oscar Wilde, who said ‘The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.'"

There is no reason why the same "tech breaks" cannot be implemented in other environments such as the workplace and at home. Consider dinnertime when mom and dad are continually distracted thinking about their email or some other technological need while the kids are dying to check their text messages. Try a tech break in identical fashion as that done in the classroom. Informally, I have seen this work amazingly well with enhanced conversation between tech breaks. Parents have told me that their kids are more open and attentive and they feel more able to concentrate on talking to their children in an opportune environment. The bottom line is that everyone wins.

So, when you notice someone's attention wandering and they are eyeing their smartphone or other connected device, suggest a short "tech break" and let them clear the oxygen out of that area of the brain and be better able to focus on you. I suggest that this be a normal practice at the dinner table, in class, at the office, at a restaurant (have you noticed how people all have their cell phones on the table during dinner?