Updated: Sep 6
More and more I hear parents and teachers talking about how they are struggling with unmotivated children and teenagers. What is to blame? Is technology a part of this conversation? Are cell phones, tablets, and other screens to blame? There are a couple of things to know and be aware of regarding the topic of motivation. Unfortunately before we dive into motivation, we have to talk about attention span and focus; two topics that tend to get WAY too much air time. Focus and attention are the attributes that help motivation work. If motivation is the motor, focus and attention is the gasoline we need to make our motor run.
In 2010 Nicholas Carr wrote the book, The Shallows, a review on technology and its impact on the brain. At the time it was one of the first public dialogues about the internet and what it may or may not be doing to our brains. In the book he openly wrote about how the internet, technology, and large amounts of screen time are changing us. He referenced our brain plasticity, the ability of neural networks within our brain to change. Our brains are malleable, even in adulthood. What we feed our brains or deprive our brains of has a lasting impact on our cognitive ability, attention, and creativity. He inferred that the internet was training our brains to constantly be interrupted. In documenting his own attention span over a specific timeframe, he noted that he was less interested in being attentive or focused. He warned that we (as a society) me lose our capacity to be deep and reflective thinkers. He said technology was going to have a long-term effect on brain cognition for both adults and children.
Fast forward to 2023 and there have literally been thousands of studies done to document the influence of digital media on our brain. We now know that technology has in fact had an impact on 3 areas of the brain: 1) thinking and learning 2) feelings and behaviors and 3) our general health and well being. There are many arguments about why these areas are strained or under attack, and many point to the large amount of passive screen viewing children are engaging in. This elevated amount of passive viewing can be attributed to technology use being introduced earlier and earlier in a child’s life, and in some cases even within the first year of life. Parents do not realize that most apps, games, and movies/shows do not require listening, talking, or comprehending from the viewer. These digital platforms do not place a demand on the brain to slow down and think critically. Free play and discovery, which encourages problem solving and deep thinking, are being replaced with passive viewing which actually encourages the brain to be idle.
Gloria DeGaetono, author of Patterns of Time, uses three big action verbs to describe what is happening internally when children and adults engage in large amounts of screen time. Technology deprives, distorts, and distracts. It deprives children of necessary sensory experiences needed for optimum development. It also deprives children of sleep and other brain development needed for brain growth. Technology distorts sensory input. Screens accentuate visual and auditory input, at the expense of kinesthesis and olfactory experiences. Our bodies need a sensory diet that is balanced and hits all 5 senses. Finally, technology distracts the child from wanting a 3-D experience (live movement and experience). A steady diet of screen time releases a steady diet of dopamine from the brain, enticing the child to crave more 2-D experiences and less 3-D. This is how and why a child’s intrinsic motivation becomes affected by technology. Without personal awareness and experience, a child is less likely to crave creativity, set personal goals, explore, discover, imagine, and even dream. Here are 4 things technology teaches our children, which ultimately affects their motivation:
Screens do not allow children to engage in self-talk, self-initiation, or self-discovery. This is when and how children develop their inner voice, their ability to problem solve, cope, and develop self-motivation.
When focused on a screen a child’s attention is centered on objects and things rather than values, ideals, and personal meaning. A child’s ability to think deeply, to compare and realize their surroundings is one of the first steps in self-monitoring or actualization; an executive functioning skill crucial to child and teen development.
During screen time a child can put forth minimal personal effort and ownership in most tasks. This creates a lethargic brain; ultimately leading our brains to conclude that trying is difficult, so why try at all?
Large amounts of technology time creates less space and opportunity for a child or teen to lose themself to the learning and the creative process. Because the brain has been trained to crave 2-D over 3-D, the internal dialogue is slowed or absent, impeding on the imagination where creative and spontaneous growth live.
Screens and technology are a part of our daily lives. Every family enjoys a good old fashion movie night! Simply being aware of passive viewing time, and making sure you are also creating time and space within your day for thinking, creating, collaborating, and problem solving can help build curiosity and motivation!