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The Danger of Always On

Great pairs complement each other to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts, and great pairs show up in each of our daily lives — blonde roast coffee beans and french vanilla creamer, Houston traffic and an immersive podcast, or Tiff’s treats and a cold glass of milk.

Do you know what doesn’t pair super well (i.e doesn’t create a whole more significant than the sum of the parts)? External stimulations and detail-oriented work. In other words, the list of atrocious pairs includes an episode of The Office and an essay over The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or the familiar ping of a Snapchat notification and calculus homework.

As we have discussed in previous blog posts, many of the executive functions we teach to students are limited resources. Hour by hour, decision by decision, our ability to perform tasks associated with the pre-frontal cortex decreases because the pre-frontal cortex is more high-maintenance and more finicky than a modern-day pop star. Skills like prioritization and inhibition, to name a few, require an inordinate amount of conservation so we can perform these functions when we need them most.

I bring up inhibition and prioritization in particular because they are among the most mental gymnastics that our pre-frontal cortex can perform. In a world of never-ending notifications, this should scare most parents and school officials. I challenge many students to think about what percentage of their day is spent not only in front of screens but also in the vicinity of screens equipped with “technological stopping power.” In other words, how much time does a student spend near highly advanced attention diverting mechanisms in the form of notifications from cell phones, smartwatches, and laptops?

Each one of these seemingly innocuous notifications requires one of the most taxing cognitive functions in our arsenal: inhibition. Furthermore, these notifications are engineered by neuroscientists to create a vortex of further distractions.

For example, a student receives a notification on her iPhone that they have received a Snapchat. The student pauses her algebra homework to respond because it “only takes a few seconds.” After answering, an impeccably timed banner pops up at the top of the screen directing the student to “Check out Ariana Grande’s newest post.” The student, driven by the brain’s natural desire for novelty, clicks. Thirty minutes later, it’s time to leave for soccer practice, and the math homework isn’t completed. It’s going to be another late night.

Does this sound familiar? With the prevalence of similar notifications of Snapchat, Tiktok, Instagram, Youtube, and even within educational apps such as Duolingo and Google Classroom, students are forced to exert enormous brainpower to inhibition. The mere presence of a notification-capable device requires inhibition, leading to cognitive fatigue and increased stress.

Enough doom and gloom about notifications, how can students (and their parents) devise systems to mitigate (or eliminate) the dangers of “Always On”?

Is it a Tiger?

Amy Arnsten, a neurobiologist at Yale, has explained that we are all the descendants of people who always paid attention to the rustling in the bushes because thousands of years ago, it could have been a tiger. Unfortunately, this period’s neurological remnants are very easy to hack with loud sounds and bright colors (notifications). One easy way to help students increase awareness of notifications and choose the proper response is to ask the question: is it a tiger? Students have a compulsive tendency to check every text message right away, but 99% of the time, these notifications are not urgent (not “tigers”). Helping a student see that and arguing for eliminating the notifications all together is a step in the right direction.

Peaks and Troughs

As we discussed in a previous post, stress and rest are both essential inputs for growth. However, coupling periods of rest with stress-inducing notifications that maintain high cortisol levels and norepinephrine in the bloodstream defeats the purpose. Encourage students to schedule periods of proper rest daily, weekly, and monthly. The goals can be big or small, but creating periods of notification elimination will help students recover some of their cognitive power and break the cycle of distraction those pesky digital devices desperately want.

Remember, inhibition takes a ton of brainpower. Therefore, Every notification we receive limits our ability to perform other demanding tasks such as essay writing or calculus homework.

For more ideas on helping your student reach their academic potential, please see our other blog posts or reach out to find your student an academic coach.

Evan Weinberger


Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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