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Since 2012 I have been a general contributor to The Huffington Post.

Sleeping With Technology: Harming Your Brain One Night at a Time

Here is an all-too-common scenario: Jeff and Mary put the kids to bed and settle down for the night to watch television. Jeff has his smartphone at his bedside and keeps checking email, social media, texts and the baseball scores while Mary checks her work emails, plays Words With Friends and checks her Facebook. At 11 they decide to turn out the lights and both of them place their phones next to the bed. Mary puts hers on silent but Jeff keeps his on vibrate in case he gets an important message during the night. Both have a tough time getting to sleep. John awakens several times during the night and checks his phone and answers an email or two. He has trouble falling back to sleep each time. They both awaken feeling exhausted. This goes on night after night after night. On the weekends they park the kids in front of the TV in the morning and try to sleep as long as possible but they are still tired come Monday.

We all know how important it is that we get a good night’s sleep. What does that mean? Well, for young college-age adults the National Sleep Foundation recommends 7 to 9 hours per night. For younger children the recommendation is even more nightly sleep. For adults like Mary and Jeff the recommendation is usually around 7 to 8 hours per night.

Sadly, most children, teens and adults are not getting close to the recommended night’s sleep and you can see this clearly in futile attempts to sleep in on the weekends to pay off our mounting “sleep debt.”

Before I talk about why I feel this is happening and the role that technology plays in getting a bad night’s sleep, it is important to understand what happens while you sleep. If you are a normal, well-rested person, your sleep is quite patterned. When you fall asleep you enter the first of several sleep cycles. In each cycle, which lasts about 90 minutes, your brain evidences four phases of deeper and deeper sleep until you reach a fifth stage called REM or rapid eye movement sleep. This is where your flickering eyelids indicate you are dreaming. The first sleep cycle dream is quite short and as the night progresses the REM phases get longer culminating in your last dream, which lasts about an hour, give or take. This is why, by the way, that most well-rested people wake up amidst a dream as that fourth sleep cycle is usually around hour 7 to 8 of sleep time.

During the night your brain is doing a variety of housekeeping functions including “synaptic rejuvenation” which involves consolidating information that you learned or experienced during the day and pruning away information that your brain feels is irrelevant or not worthy of consolidating and keeping. In addition, spinal fluid sweeps through your brain to wash out the sometimes-toxic by-products of thinking including bits of used proteins. Among these proteins are beta amyloids. If these beta amyloids are not removed they eventually build up into “plaques” which inhibit cell-to-cell communication and, sadly, are seen in abundance in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.

When you do not get a good night’s sleep these phases do not proceed as they would if you were well rested. This means that your brain does not get to do its synaptic rejuvenation and other housekeeping actions including washing out toxic remains from a day’s mental experiences. Add in days and days of poor sleep and you will soon have a a brain that does not function at its optimal level.

You can see the effects of lack of sleep by looking at what happens when you are so tired that you decide to take a nap. Naps are not inherently bad for you and in fact some research shows that they can be beneficial to your brain functioning. However, if you are exhausted you most likely lapse right into dreaming when you start your nap. This means you are skipping over the normal sleep phases where most of the housekeeping takes place.

My colleagues and I recently published a study where we tested a model that examined the role of technology in getting a good night’s sleep. 734 college students [our college students were a bit older than the norm averaging nearly 26 years old] completed surveys that assessed sleep problems, smartphone use (both during a typical day and night as well as preference for multitasking as opposed to completing one task at a time), and two critical variables concerning our brain’s performance: executive functioning and anxiety. Executive functioning encompasses how well you make decisions, avoid impulsive responses, work on problems, and attend to your world. Anxiety, in this study, was a special type of anxiety sometimes referred to as FOMO or fear of missing out. Our measure asked about how anxious you get when you do not have your phone or cannot access the Internet and also a personal assessment of how dependent you are on technology.

The model we tested proposed that after controlling for all demographic characteristics of our sample, the cognitive issue (executive functioning) and the affective variable (anxiety/FOMO) would predict overuse of technology and multitasking which, in turn, would predict sleep problems. Before talking about the how the model worked it is important to point out that half the participants kept their phone close by while they slept (nearly all with it on vibrate or ring) and 49% checked it during the night for something other than the time at least once (32%) or two or more times (17%). Not surprisingly our students averaged only 6.68 hours of sleep per night over the previous four weeks with two-thirds averaging 7 or less hours of nightly sleep.

So, how did we do in predicting sleep problems? Poor executive functioning predicted sleep problems and also predicted more nighttime awakenings, which, in turn, predicted sleep problems. Anxiety, however, was the stronger predictor. People anxious about missing out on technology used their smartphone more each day, preferred to multitask more, and awakened more often to check their phone. Each of those predicted a poor night’s sleep.

So what do we think is happening? There are two ways to look at this: biochemically and psychologically. Both are relevant. Biochemically, when you awaken in the morning your brain sees blue wavelength light, which releases small amounts of the hormone cortisol, which serves to slowly awaken you. At the other end of the day, when you approach dusk your eyes take in more red wavelength light which then allows melatonin to be released over a period of several hours which eventually leads to sleep. Technological devices emit light at multiple wavelengths to produce the white light you see with a substantial amount in the blue wavelength part of the light spectrum. This blue wavelength light serves to increase the secretion of cortisol (and wake you up) and inhibit the release of melatonin (which makes you not sleepy). Luckily, light at all wavelengths dissipates by the inverse square law which means that as long as you keep your device a substantial distance from your face you are not getting much blue light. How far away do you keep your phone or your iPad? The Mayo Clinic says that if you are planning to use a device in bed that you hold it 14 inches away from your face and dim the brightness which further reduces the blue wavelength light from reaching your retina. The National Sleep Foundation goes one giant step further and recommends that you not use any device within an hour of attempting to fall asleep. Given their research showing that 90% of American adults use their electronic devices within an hour of bedtime at least a few nights a week, this may be difficult.

Psychological issues are quite a different story. Remember that both executive dysfunction — primarily poor decision-making and lack of ability to attend — and FOMO anxiety predicted a poor night’s sleep. These are fixable. First, we need to learn to practice metacognition by gaining a better understanding of how our brain works. If we know that we are not making good decisions about using technology prior to bedtime that is the first step to being metacognitive; if we can make behavioral changes that is even better. One metacognitive change would be to recognize that we are all responding to alerts and notifications like Pavlov’s dogs and realize that at a minimum we should silence our phone or turn off all alerts. An even better metacognitive change would be to put our phone away an hour before bedtime but if that is too extreme consider starting small by putting the phone and tablet in another room 15 minutes before bedtime. Then when you get used to 15 minutes of time away from your devices start increasing the time until you get to an hour.

The impact on sleep of FOMO — anxiety about missing out on technology use, particularly communication-based technologies like email, texts, social media, etc. — was pronounced in our study (and has been shown to be a strong predictor of problematic behavior in other studies). The first step is metacognitive in that you will need to understand what this anxiety is doing to you, your brain and your body. We are not meant to be a bubbling pool of anxiety-laden chemicals. Their constant presence can lead to mental and physical health issues. Once that information becomes part of your understanding of the impact of technology on sleep you must begin the process of uncoupling the alerts and notifications with a knee-jerk response model.

Just because you got a text message does not mean you have to respond a.s.a.p. The problem with our obsessive behavior has been building for a long time and will not go away quickly. I suggest starting small again and alerting people in your virtual worlds — those you regularly text, email, and connect with through social media — that you are going to be learning how to not be such a quick responder. We know that this is difficult as a slow or nonresponse to a message leads to assumptions about the other person (“he must not like me or he would text right back” or “she must be angry with me” are common reactions to a delayed response). It will help if you use the auto respond function wherever you can to remind people that you may take a bit of time to get back to them. Start by waiting for 15 minutes to respond to messages and when that is working start increasing the time until you can get to at least 30 minutes. If you have trouble ignoring the alerts you can silence your phone during that time or use one of the many smartphone apps that will only allow calls or messages from certain people (in case of emergencies).

I am sure that many of you are wondering what you will do if you can’t use your smartphone prior to bedtime. I suggest any activity that is repetitive and doesn’t require communication. For example, most of your favorite television shows are fairly predictable so watching one can be calming to your brain as long as the device is not close to your face. Another option is to build a playlist on a device with only your absolute favorite songs, ones that you can sing in your sleep. If that device is a smartphone make sure you silence any alerts as even a slight vibration or beep will start the cortisol and stop the melatonin. Third, you might consider reading an actual [gasp] paper book, particularly if the author is one who you know well as the plots will often be predictable. Predictable means less activation of the neurons and biochemistry of your brain, which will allow you to fall asleep more easily.

The bottom line is this will not be an easy road but it is not too late to save your brain. I always prided myself on being able to be wide awake and productive with only 5 hours of sleep but over the years I see that that has taken its toll on my ability to process information. I have been following my advice in this post for about a year and already feel better and more prepared to be productive on a daily basis. You can do it, too!


S. K. Adams and T. S. Kisler, “Sleep Quality as a Mediator between Technology-Related Sleep Quality, Depression, and Anxiety,” CyberPsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 16, no. 1 (2013): 25-30.

A.-M. Chang, D. Aeschbach, J. F. Duffy, and C. A. Czeisler, “Evening Use of Light-Emitting eReaders Negatively Affects Sleep, Circadian Timing, and Next-Morning Alertness,” PNAS (2014),

K. Custers and J. Van den Bulck, “Television Viewing, Internet Use, and Self-Reported Bedtime and Rise Time in Adults: Implications for Sleep Hygiene Recommendations from an Exploratory Cross-Sectional Study,” Behavioral Sleep Medicine 10, no. 2 (2012): 96-105.

J. S. Durmer and D. F. Dinges, “Neurocognitive Consequences of Sleep Deprivation,” Seminars in Neurology 25, no. 1 (2005): 117-129.

J. Falbe, K. K. Davison, R. L. Franckle, C. Ganter, S. L. Gortmaker, L. Smith, T. Land, and E. M. Taveras, “Sleep Duration, Restfulness, and Screens in the Sleep Environment,” Pediatrics 135, no. 2 (2015): 1-9,

M. Gradisar, A. R. Wolfson, A. G. Harvey, L. Hale, R. Rosenberg, and C. A. Czeisler, “The Sleep and Technology Use of Americans: Findings from the National Sleep Foundation’s 2011 Sleep in America Poll,” Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine 9, no. 12 (2013): 1291-1299.

L. Hale and S. Guan, “Screen Time and Sleep among School-Aged Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Literature Review,” Sleep Medicine Reviews 21 (2015): 50-58.

S. Lemola, N. Perkinson-Gloor, S. Brand, J. F. Dewald-Kaufmann, and A. Grob, “Adolescents’ Electronic Media Use at Night, Sleep Disturbance, and Depressive Symptoms in the Smartphone Age,” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 44, no. 2 (2014): 405-418

P. A. Lewis, The Secret World of Sleep: The Surprising Science of the Mind at Rest, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Mayo Clinic, “Are Smartphones Disrupting Your Sleep? Mayo Clinic Examines the Question,” June 3, 2013,

L. Rosen, L. M. Carrier, A. Miller, J. Rokkum, and Ruiz, “Sleeping with Technology: Cognitive, Affective, and Technology Usage Predictors of Sleep Problems among College Students,” Sleep Health 2, no. 1 (2016): 49-56.

E. H. Telzer, A. J. Fuligni, M. D. Lieberman, and A. Galvn, “The Effects of Poor Quality Sleep on Brain Function and Risk Taking in Adolescence,” Neuroimage 71 (2013):

ADHD and Technology: Helping Our Children Reclaim Their Focus and Attention

A recent New York Times piece by Richard A. Friedman entitled “A Natural Fix for A.D.H.D.”caught my eye this past week as I am right in the middle of writing a book chapter about how technology impacts people who have a range of psychiatric disorders. In particular, my co-author, Dr. Adam Gazzaley, and I are exploring how and why we react the way we do to interfering stimuli to create a “Distracted Mind.” The article pointed out that as of 2011, according to the CDC, a staggering 11 percent of young people in America — between the ages of 4 and 17 — suffered from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder making it the most common psychiatric illness in that age group and representing a 41 percent increase from only eight years prior in 2003. One specific passage seems very relevant and echoed some of my thoughts on the subject:

“I think another social factor that, in part, may be driving the “epidemic” of A.D.H.D. has gone unnoticed: the increasingly stark contrast between the regimented and demanding school environment and the highly stimulating digital world, where young people spend their time outside school. Digital life, with its vivid gaming and exciting social media, is a world of immediate gratification where practically any desire or fantasy can be realized in the blink of an eye. By comparison, school would seem even duller to a novelty-seeking kid living in the early 21st century than in previous decades, and the comparatively boring school environment might accentuate students’ inattentive behavior, making their teachers more likely to see it and driving up the number of diagnoses.”

I agree with Mr. Friedman that “digital life” is omnipresent in the home, the car, and, in fact, anywhere the child or teenager happens to be able to use a smartphone. Immediate gratification is most certainly one of the reasons for a child or a teenager not being able to pay attention in school and it is a powerful one. How can school, even when technology is added as part of the curriculum, ever compare to the lure of an action video game or constant connection afforded by a seemingly infinite electronic communication opportunities through texting, email, Skype, and, of course, social media sites?

However, I feel that there are other reasons that school students might fail to pay attention other than simply wanting a more engaging electronic environment and ultimately I feel that it comes down to how we parent our children. Due to my earlier books on the impact of technology on children, teens and young adults in the Net Generation and the iGeneration, I have been able to speak at dozens of schools around the world where parents all ask the same question: “What is the right amount of technology for my child?”

The answer is fairly straightforward and it is composed of four main parts:

Technology time should not be all consuming. My guidelines are not as stringent as those of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends no screen time prior to the age of 2. Recognizing that parents need downtime and that technology can have educational benefits, I recommend that parents of young children set a rule of no more than 30 minutes of technology (and that includes television) at any one sitting which is to be followed by between three and five times that time doing non-technological activities that must include conversation — necessary to learn the pragmatics of communication — and free play time — to allow the brain’s Default Mode Network to take over and aid the child in developing creative thoughts and actions. So, if a child watches a half hour of Dora the Explorer then she should spend about 90 minutes or more playing with adults or other children and engaging in free play with a variety of toys and objects to allow for a future young adult who is able to communicate with others and possesses a creative mind.

As children get older and technology has more to offer, the ratio of tech time to nontech time changes. Preteens should be allowed to spend an hour or so at a single stretch with any form of technology, which is to be followed by an equal time spent communicating with others or simply playing without technology. By the time your preteen becomes a teenager technology will be all consuming. Regardless, it is important to limit tech time to no more than 90-120 minutes at a stretch followed by at least a 10- to 30-minute break doing something else. This break allows the brain to reset itself from the constant bombardment of technology’s multisensory environment, which then makes it easier to learn new material.

If your child is like many, and is constantly torn from whatever he or she is doing to another activity then it is time to help relearn how to focus. Although this lack of focus is not entirely due to technology, there is ample research indicating that technology, with its constant alerts, notifications and multisensory stimulation, provides a strong external pull on a child’s attention. [NOTE TO PARENTS: just know that you are not exempt from this pull and these suggestions might be helpful for you, too!] When your child is using a smartphone or websites to communicate with friends — which includes online gaming and even email — have them check in with each one of them for a total of one minute (OK, if your child complains make it two minutes) and then turn them all off including shutting down websites and email and silence the phone, tablet and any other device that might bring an alert or notification. Then set a timer on the phone for 15 minutes and place it upside down in plain sight. Upside down means that flashing alerts will be out of view and keeping the phone in plain sight is an important stimulus to the brain saying, “Don’t worry! You will get to check in within 15 minutes or less.” [In one recent study we took away smartphones from college students for an hour and their anxiety soared making learning impossible.] When the alarm sounds let your child spend another minute checking everything and then repeat the process until it feels comfortable. The first few times do this “technology break” in a public place where you can watch because the 15 minutes will seem like an ETERNITY to a constantly task-switching child or teenager (or adult). Then increase the 15 minutes to 20 and eventually hope to get to 30-60 minutes of focus time separated by short “check-in” breaks.

Technology must be removed prior to bedtime. Research by the National Sleep Foundation and other researchers has shown that using technology right up to bedtime interferes with getting a good night’s sleep. Children and teens are supposed to get at least eight hours a night and many organizations recommend nine hours a night as optimal for a healthy learning brain. One culprit in a bad night’s sleep is technology (see references below for recent studies on the impact of nighttime technology on sleep among children and teens). During the day sunlight increases our exposure to light in the short blue wavelength portion of the light spectrum, which increases our alertness by releasing neurotransmitters that energize our body. As the sun starts to go down, the predominant light is now in the red wavelength part of the spectrum which suppresses those energizing neurotransmitters in the brain and releases melatonin which helps us get tired and fall asleep over a period of hours. The problem is that all of our devices emit light in the blue portion of the spectrum so using a smartphone or laptop or any device close to your face retards the melatonin and makes it more difficult to fall asleep. The solution? No technology during the last hour before bedtime. There are exceptions. Television is fine as long as it is far enough from the eyes that the blue light is dissipating rapidly. Music is also fine as long as it is being played from a device that is not close enough to be checked allowing the blue light to retard the melatonin. [NOTE: For more detailed explanations about these guidelines on sleep check out my Huffington Post blog entitled, “Keeping Your Family ‘Brain Healthy’ in an Always Connected World” from earlier this year.

I hope that these suggestions will help you keep your children healthy while allowing them to get the most out of their software and hardware while keeping their “humanware” intact.

The following published articles summarize the research on the role of technology in sleep disturbance among children and teenagers:

Lemola, S., Perkinson-Gloor, N., Brand, S., Dewald-Kaufmann, J. F., & Grob, A. (2014). Adolescents’ Electronic Media Use at Night, Sleep Disturbance, and Depressive Symptoms in the Smartphone Age. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 1-14.

Hale, L., & Guan, S. (2014). Screen time and sleep among school-aged children and adolescents: A systematic literature review. Sleep Medicine Reviews.

Adams, S. K., & Kisler, T. S. (2013). Sleep quality as a mediator between technology-related sleep quality, depression, and anxiety. CyberPsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 16(1), 25-30.

Our Obsessive Relationship With Technology

I am an inveterate people watcher, which is probably why I started college thinking that I was going to be a math teacher and ended up getting my degrees in psychology. For the past 30+ years, as I have studied the “psychology of technology” I have always taken a strongly positive view about the impact it has on our culture and all of my writing has been in service of seeing how we can make the most of these marvelous inventions. From the beginnings of the Internet, to the rapid rise of the WWW, laptops, smartphones, tablets and more, we now have the world at our fingertips whenever we want and wherever we might find ourselves.

Lately, however, I have witnessed something that profoundly troubles me. WE CAN’T SEEM TO KEEP OUR FACES OUT OF OUR SMARTPHONES FOR EVEN A MINUTE OR TWO. Some people call it an addiction. Others call it an obsession. But, there is an important difference between the two. Addiction means that you are trying to get your brain to release neurotransmitters that we have learned signal a pleasurable experience. Obsession also involves neurotransmitters but those chemicals are associated with symptoms of stress and anxiety. When we are addicted to something we strive for the pleasure it brings. When we are obsessed with something we strive to reduce the anxiety molecules in our brain. Personally, I think that our constant obsession with technology–obsession being an anxiety-based disorder–is mostly about reducing anxiety and very little about gaining pleasure. Just as Jack Nicholson kept doing repetitive activities in As Good As It Gets, we seem to be doing the same with our smartphones.

For example, how many times have you seen someone pat their pocket and smile, having been reassured that their phone was still safely nestled close at hand? How often have you experienced “phantom pocket vibrations” where you felt a tingling near your pocket area–or wherever you keep your phone–only to discover that rather than the alert or notification you “thought” you just received what you felt was just some neurons near the surface of your skin randomly firing? A few years ago I would have just reached down and scratched that itch. Now I am supremely disappointed that it is only an itch.

Walking around Times Square on vacation I could not find one person who was not gazing into a phone, even those who were traveling with others. My friends around the world tell me that they see the same behaviors. The other day in the dining room at my campus I watched a young woman eating lunch with her supervisor pick up her phone while he was talking and check her email. And the more interesting part is that he kept on talking to her and didn’t seem slighted at all.

Last summer I took a road trip with my youngest daughter and visited some of the most beautiful scenery in the US traversing four western national parks. One day we hiked all the way up to Inspiration Point only to find that since there was a cell tower up there nearly every hiker was looking down rather than out at the magnificent vista. And those who were looking were busily snapping pictures instead of simply looking and experiencing the magnificent views. I doubt whether they can have the same experience of nature through that small lens. Will those who were taking videos get the same enjoyment by reliving the views rather than experiencing them? Will they even watch those videos again?

Another interesting and somewhat troubling observation is that many young people, and a lot of older ones too, carry their phone in their hand. I often ask them why and the answer is always the same: “So, I know immediately when I get an text or an email or someone posts on social media.” I guess taking a second or two to take that phone out of a pocket or purse is not soon enough in our tech-rich world.

And I find it amusing (and somewhat disconcerting) that people make excuses to escape whoever they are supposed to be spending time with so that they can check in with other people who may not even be real-life friends. I like going out to dinner with friends and am bewildered at how many people put their phone on the table and if it vibrates they interrupt whatever is going on to tap a few keys and return to the conversation often asking, “What did I miss?” Some people call this FOMO–Fear of Missing Out–but by choosing to not miss out on their virtual social world they are missing out on their real social world right in front of their face.

Another view of our obsession is evident as bedtime nears. People use their phones right up until they turn out the lights even though all of the research shows that this leads to suppression of melatonin and difficulty sleeping. Three fourths of teens and young adults sleep with their phone next to their bed either with the sound on or on vibrate and awaken several times a night to check incoming alerts. This disrupts our sleep cycle, which then impairs the all-important processes that our brain requires for its nightly housekeeping.

I am still a believer in the major benefits technology brings to our world but I sincerely hope that what we are seeing is just another pendulum swing where we become so excited about something new that we want to use it obsessively and as time passes we become less captivated and use it less often until the next new thing comes into our world and the pendulum swings again. But the observer in me shakes his head and wonders whether the pendulum has reached its apex yet and, if not, what that will do to our relationship with the world and the “real” people who inhabit it. I remain optimistic.

Keeping Your Family ‘Brain Healthy’ in an Always Connected World

Recently, I delivered a daylong workshop to representatives of international schools at a conference in Mumbai, India, hosted by the American School of Bombay. The conference is called ASB Unplugged and this is my third appearance in the last three years with the audience being IT directors, administrators and teachers all working in schools that heavily incorporate technology. I had prepared for weeks, had my slides nicely divided into three modules and was going along fine until someone asked me the following question:

“Based on your research and research that you have read and trust, what are your main suggestions for us to help our students stay focused and not get distracted?”

I thought for a moment and proceeded to ditch the last two-thirds of my talk and carefully extracted a few slides here and a few slides there and had an epiphany. Yes, I could answer her question and yes I did feel that I had the data to back up most of my answers. Where I didn’t have the data I felt that I had a reasonable explanation based on what I know about brain functioning. And, more importantly, I felt that I could take her question one step further and talk more generally about what we could do to help our family stay healthy including both our daily and nighttime activities. I think that the latter — our sleep and rest — is more critical than ever because the data show that most of us are not getting enough rest and that’s not good for our brain or our lives.

In one study of ours we found that teenagers average 6.1 hours of sleep per weeknight and try to make up for it by sleeping an average of 10-plus hours on the weekend. Using the American Pediatric Academy’s guideline that teens need an average of 9 hours of sleep per night the math leads us to the conclusion that teens are accumulating a 12-hour sleep debt per week! Just visit the National Sleep Foundation’s website and read some of their reports and you, too, will be convinced how important it is that we relearn how to sleep for our health.

Step 1: Reset Your Overloaded Brain Often During the Day: And Help Your Children Do the Same
There is now ample evidence that technology and our busy lives overly stimulate our brains. And most family members are immersed in technology all day long, often for hours on end without a break. There is also emerging evidence that certain activities act to calm our brains. For example, one study had participants wear an EEG cap and first walk in a busy, urban area and, not surprisingly, their brains showed heightened activity.

However, when they then walked into a park the activity decreased dramatically in a very short time. Leaving the park and walking in the city again jacked up the activity. Based on my reading of similar studies there are many activities you can do to calm your brain (I cover these activities and more in my book, iDisorder). Mindful meditation works as does exercise. Other potential calming activities include taking a hot shower or bath, speaking a foreign language, listening to music, looking at art, laughing, talking to a friend (but only if it is a positive conversation; negative conversations appear to overly activate your brain) and even practicing a musical instrument. And it appears that it only takes about five to 10 minutes for the brain activity to reduce significantly.

This is not a new concept. Cigarette breaks and coffee breaks were designed to get us away from our desks to revitalize us and make us more productive, albeit through the ingestion of chemicals. As far back as the 1960s, Nathaniel Kleitman, a pioneer in sleep research, suggested that just as our sleeping brains have 90-minute cycles so do our awake brains. He called this our Basic Rest and Activity Cycle and suggested that every 80 to 120 minutes our brains need a rest (you can about this in the following article: Kleitman, N., Basic rest-activity cycle — 22 years later, Journal of Sleep Research & Sleep Medicine, 5(4), Dec 1982, 311-317 or an interesting interview with Dr. Kleitman in David Lloyd and Ernest Rossi’s book, Ultradian Rhythms in Life Processes: An Inquiry into Fundamental Principles of Chronobiology and Psychobiology). Try a 10-minute break every hour and a half to two hours and pick an activity that neuroscientists know calm your brain activity.

Step 2: Train Yourself and Your Family Members to Focus and Attend With Technology Breaks
There has been a lot of talk about how we are overloaded with technology and the truth is that we are. Most of us carry our smartphone in our pockets or purse and rarely is it out of sight (and certainly not out of mind). As an observer of people, I have noticed many younger people choosing to carry their smartphone in their hand almost as an extension of their body. When I ask them why they claim that they want to feel the vibration so that they don’t miss anything. Some call it FOMO or fear of missing out, and about six months ago I wrote a post on this very topic for Psychology Today, which is prominent among heavy smartphone users (Always On, All the Time: Are We Suffering From FoMO?).

I have heard some claim that we need to go on a technology fast to appreciate our life without technology and recently spent time talking about this with someone who runs a weekend digital detox program. But I think that begs the issue. No matter how much fun you have playing games and interacting face-to-face with people over a weekend you are still going to return to your world of email, Facebook, Twitter, text messages, Instagram, World of Warcraft and oh so many electronic communication modalities. They are alluring and they make us feel, for the most part, wanted and cared for by our “friends” be they friends in RL (real life) or SL (screen life).

By the way, I am not disclaiming the value of both types of friends. In a recent study we found that those young adults who had more Facebook friends AND who spent more time talking to people on the telephone evidenced fewer symptoms of dysthymia (mild depression) and major depression. This is not to say that having many Facebook friends is all good since it also predicted more symptoms of mania, narcissism, OCD and many other anxiety-based disorders.

So the solution is not to stop using the tools that are so valuable at providing connection and knowledge. The trick is to learn when to use them and when to put them aside. In July 2013, I wrote a blog post for The Huffington Post entitled, “”You Don’t Need a Digital Detox: You Just Need to Learn to Set Limits and Boundaries.” At this point it was simply an idea of how one might go about helping students in tech-rich classrooms learn to focus. I have since extended it to how to help your family have a tech-free dinner at home or in a restaurant as well as how to develop a sense of focus when you are supposed to be spending time with family and not continually glancing at your smartphone.

Over the past nearly three years many teachers and parents have reported back to me that they are using tech breaks with major success. One teacher in my workshop literally spent five minutes telling the others how magnificent it was working with her middle school and high school students. The technique is simple and you can read about it in my earlier blog post but the upshot is that you are training your brain to not produce neurotransmitters that, in turn, produce physical anxiety symptoms, which then signal your brain to check in with technology to reduce those symptoms and rid the brain of those neurotransmitters.

Step 3: Have Your Children Put Away Their Smartphones an Hour Before Bedtime (and You Do the Same, to Model Healthy Brain Behavior)
Taking our cue from the National Sleep Foundation we did a study that examined the activities that might lead to a poor night’s sleep among teens and college students. Basically, three things predicted a poor night’s sleep: excessive use of a smartphone in the last hour before bedtime, constant multitasking during that same time period and sleeping with a smartphone next to the bed (ostensibly as an alarm clock).

Although we never published the study due to some methodological issues, the conclusions, I believe, are valid. We found, for example, that 75 percent of the subjects slept with their phone next to the bed either with the ringer on or on vibrate and most checked their phone if they awakened during the night. Sure, they told us they were just looking at it to check the time but nearly all smartphones display recent alerts and notifications and seeing them impacts your brain chemistry and essentially disrupts your sleep cycle by activating a variety of neurotransmitters depending on the messages and alerts and their emotional impact. If you, or your teenager claim that you keep your phone next to the bed because it’s your alarm clock I will be happy to send you a link to a very inexpensive alarm clock that does nothing but display the time.

Step 4: Replace Nighttime Smartphone Use With More Calming Activities
This suggestion is based less on actual data and more on my rudimentary understanding of brain function and neurotransmitters. Without your smartphone what will you do? In my guess is that the more familiar the program — meaning the more predictable the plot — the less it will activate your brain in ways that might make sleep difficult. Along the same lines, I suggest that listening to music might also help but only music that is very familiar, in fact, so familiar that you feel you can hum the tune in your sleep.

Again, my supposition is that this predictable music will activate fewer disruptive neurotransmitters and essentially use well-reinforced neural pathways that we know require less oxygen and glucose. Don’t listen to new music because that will likely lead to more brain activation as you try to learn the tune and the words, which will interfere with the production of neurotransmitters that aid in falling asleep. My final suggestion is to read a paper book. However, I recommend that you don’t simply select any book but read one written by an author that you like and have read extensively so that the writing and the plot is predictable, again, hopefully using less brain power and allowing for sleep to ensue.

Step 5: Have Everyone in Your Family Practice Metacognition
Metacognition is understanding how your mind or brain works. Extended into the realm of technology, a metacognitive person is one who has a clear idea of what activities are stimulating and what activities are calming. Checking your email before you go to bed is probably not smart and a person who is metacognitive knows that. It’s important to learn what activities you personally find calming and relaxing and which ones simply overactivate your brain.

Personally, I find crossword puzzles calming, which sounds counterintuitive since they are certainly using a lot of brainpower but for me they are calming, and don’t disrupt my ability to sleep. I find some television shows relaxing and others invigorating. Some people know that taking a shower before bed relaxes them while others find a shower wakes them up and stimulates them. You alone know the activities that are good and calming for your brain and even if they make no sense practice being metacognitive about what you do during your rest and sleep periods.

When I visit schools around the world I insist that I not only speak to the teachers and parents but that I have the opportunity to talk to the students. My message is often all about how their brains function and even the youngest ones get it. With some analogies, students can understand how their brains function and how important it is to take care of them to stay healthy and alert all day long and how to get the most out of their nighttime activities and sleep. As we learn more about how our brain functions I suspect we will also learn more about what is good for our brain and what is not. As I learn more I will share the information here with you.

You Don’t Need a Digital Detox: You Just Need to Learn to Set Limits and Boundaries

Just before I left on an eight-day road trip vacation, most often without a cell signal or wifi, I read with interest Matt Haber’s New York Times article entitled, “A Trip to Camp to Break a Tech Addiction.” I vowed to pay attention to my own feelings about being disconnected and to see if a digital detox, like the one described in the article, made sense for someone like me, a writer, a professor and someone who is connected from the moment I awaken to late into the evening. When my phone buzzes I feel a bit like Pavlov’s dog as I rapidly reach into my pocket to embrace whatever virtual missive awaits me. On some level I know that this obsession — and yes, it is an obsession and I will talk about that later — is not good for me. As a long-time college professor with an intense interest in psychological research and neuroscience investigations, I am aware of what has happened to us over the past few years as we have become more immersed in our amazing technological world. I have studied it and written about it and feel as though I am just getting a handle on the issue and the possible solution to staying sane in this amazing high-tech world we have created with help from people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. And I have to say that just as in the medical field, I am not sure that a radical detox, defined as completely giving up technology for a period of time, will be successful. In this post I hope to explain my thoughts and make a case for a different approach.

A little back story first. I am a research psychologist who has studied the “psychology of technology” for nearly 30 years. I am both a geek and an advocate for the use of technology in education and someone who has studied the potential downsides of technology. What I have noticed over the last few years, both anecdotally and through research, is that we are all acting as though we are obsessed with our technology, and particularly our smartphones. Here are some observations I made on my road trip through the beautiful northwest national parks:

At dinner, even in the most remote locations, people were trying to find places where they would get even a tiny cell signal. I watched one man stand with one foot in the highway which he claimed was where he could get at least one bar.
We checked into a lodge in Yellowstone where we expected wifi and discovered the wifi router was broken. I felt a twinge of upset since I was “promised” that I could connect and was hoping to do some work that night. The gentleman next to me, however, was so angry that he was yelling at the manager and that made me realize the absurdity of the situation.
As we headed for the top of Signal Mountain in the Grand Tetons we turned the final corner and saw at least a dozen people using their phones. Lo and behold, Signal Mountain has a cell tower and rather than actually looking at the amazing vista, most people, young and old, were fiddling with their smartphones.
I carried two smartphones in my pocket, my daughter’s and mine, and on our last day we hiked up to Inspiration Point in The Grand Tetons (actually I hiked while she crutched having just had ankle surgery). As we reached the top, both phones began to buzz like crazy bringing in texts, phone calls and email messages that we were not able to get elsewhere. I ignored the buzzing and realized that somehow I had inadvertently figured out how to let go.

When I headed home from Jackson Hole, flying out amidst the Tetons, I realized that although I had used my phone daily I had somehow accidentally set up my own detox. But it is a bit more complicated than that so let me explain more in detail about what went through my mind as the trip unfolded.

From Day 1 I was aware that phone access was going to be scarce. I wasn’t worried a lot about this although I did promise myself that I would check in at night in the hotel. I even — shudder, shudder — left my laptop at home and only traveled with my smartphone (although I must confess that twice along the way I did use my daughter’s laptop at night for particularly long email responses). As we drove through four states that first day I kept glancing at my phone to see if we had a signal. Mostly nothing and when I did get a signal I realized that the incoming messages were mostly garbage and could either be deleted or saved for later response. One email from a reporter got answered on the road with my dictating a response to my daughter that I would answer the email questions that night at the hotel. Each day I spent less and less time checking my phone, not by design, but by a very steep learning curve. If you pull your phone out of your pocket 100 times and only 1 or 2 times is there even anything new to look at, you slowly start to realize that your constant checking behavior may not be healthy for you.

My colleagues and I at the George Marsh Applied Cognition Lab at California State University, Dominguez Hills have been studying this “checking in” behavior for several years and have seen a dramatic increase in how often young people — and when I say young people I mean mostly those under the age of 40 — check their phone even without an alert. Far more than half check in with their smartphone every 15 minutes or less. In a study of the impact of technology use on sleeping habits, we found that 75 percent of university students slept with their phone next to the bed either on full ringtone or on vibrate and woke up most nights to check in either due to an alert interrupting their sleep or their brain telling them to check. In addition, those who used their smartphone more during the last hour before sleep had more sleep difficulties and were more sleep deprived, identical to findings from the National Sleep Foundation. When we completed this study I wondered what impact my late night phone use might be having. Heck, I was only playing Words with Friends … well, and responding to e-mails, checking my Twitter feed, looking at my ESPN app, reading my Zite newsreader and (uh oh). I made a conscious decision about six months ago to turn off my phone at 11p.m. and even though I use it as a alarm clock I vowed not to check it if I got up in the middle of the night or woke up a bit early and planned to try to sleep more.

So far I have done fairly well with this routine and I think that my brain is doing better. Basically, I still use my smartphone all the time but I think that by small modifications in how and when I check in I am gradually changing the biochemistry of my brain. How can that be? Well, one thing I am learning from neuroscience is that when you are anxious your brain is releasing some neurotransmitters — while removing others — with the result being outward physical symptoms of anxiety such as intrusive thoughts, sweaty palms, racing heart and more. The intrusive thoughts were the telltale sign for me. I would be watching the news and almost subconsciously I would pick up my phone and thumb my way to one app or the other even though I was not really looking for anything in particular. I found that my external attention to the news was being distracted by my internal urging to check in with my phone. Strangely, most of the time I had no idea what my brain was urging me to check but check I did.

Why won’t a digital detox work? I have no data to support this but have talked to quite a few people who have attempted to go on data fasts ranging from a few days to an entire year. The upshot is that they simply don’t work. Spending a short time experiencing nature or spending time with friends and family is great and helpful but the bottom line is that until you change the way your brain perceives the world you are not going to stop it from enjoining you to constantly stay in touch. I think that Matt Haber’s first sentence sums up how salient the internal pressure is to check in when he says, “There was a phantom buzzing in my shorts. I had carried my iPhone in my left front pocket for so many years that my jeans have permanent rectangular fade marks over my thigh. By now the phone is almost an extension of my nervous system; even without the thing on my person, I could still feel it tingle like a missing limb.” That’s those neurotransmitters at work urging you to check the tingling phantom vibrations when there has been no external stimulus to indicate an incoming alert.

So, what is the solution? I advocate setting three types of limits on your own behavior much as we set limits on our children’s behaviors. The first one is to not let yourself use technology for longer than 90 minutes at one sitting. Every 90 minutes or so take a 10-minute break and do something nontechnological that neuroscientists now know serve to reset your brain chemistry. For example, walking outside in the natural world resets your brain. Several recent studies have demonstrated that nature is restorative. Exercising works, too, as does meditation, talking to a friend (live), listening to music, practicing a foreign language and even taking a hot shower. The old adage that you have your best thoughts in the shower is true! When your brain is calm it often enters a state known as the Default Mode Network, which is evident, when we are being creative, daydreaming and find our mind wandering. When was the last time you allowed yourself even 10 minutes to let your mind wander?

The second limit is more difficult for some people. I firmly believe that for a teenager and an adult, the ratio of tech time to non-tech time (and I am not counting sleeping time as non-tech time) should be five to one. So, if you are working for two hours on your computer then you need to set aside about 20-25 minutes for time without technology. This is different than the brain-resetting breaks. You need chunks of time away from technology to remind you that life is more than staring into a screen.

Finally, the last limit is teaching yourself what I call “technology breaks.” I have teachers around the country using these in their classrooms and bosses using them during meetings. I have even encouraged families who bring their phones to the dinner table to learn to use tech breaks. Here’s how it works in the classroom or boardroom. Everyone is given a minute (or two or whatever you choose) to check their phone and then each phone is turned to silent and placed upside down on the table or desk in plain sight. Then one person sets an alarm for 15 minutes and when it goes off stands up and yells “Tech Break!” and everyone gets one-minute to check in. After a week or so the savvy teacher or boss extends the tech break to 20 minutes, and then 25 and finally up to 30 minutes, the maximum I have found to successfully keep the anxiety-laden neurotransmitters at bay. What you are doing is training your brain that it is fine to go 15 minutes or even longer without checking in and nothing earth shattering is going to happen if you only check in periodically. You may not be the first to “like” your friend’s Facebook post or Instagram photo but does it really matter in the long run? Will your friend feel badly that you weren’t the first?

The bottom line is that a detox is an interesting idea but, quite honestly, it does not tackle the problem that our brain is often the culprit in setting up a feeling that we must constantly check in with our virtual worlds or we will miss out on something important. Just as we do with our children, we need to set limits and boundaries on our behavior and slowly, ever so slowly, wean ourselves off of constant checking in to checking in on a schedule that allows us to stop being Pavlov’s dog.

Game Changers But Not Brain Changers

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

In her TEDTalk, Louise Leakey explained how archaeology has informed us about where we came from and, perhaps, where we are headed as a human species. I was particularly interested in Leakey’s explanations of how our brains are different from our ancestors and how that affects our development as a relatively young species.

I have spent the past 30-plus years studying the “psychology of technology” investigating how children, teenagers and adults use technology. Back in the mid-1980s the most common technology was the television and it was nearly always viewed alone. The Internet was becoming available to the general public through the World Wide Web and email was becoming an important workplace tool. These changes, however, took years to penetrate society. Using the consumer adoption metric of reaching 50 million people, while the computer took nearly two decades to reach this milestone, the Web took a mere four years. And that trend has accelerated with new technologies penetrating society in a matter of months rather than years or decades. In the 1980s and well into the 1990s, the typical techie might access a handful of devices on a daily basis, nearly always one at a time. Now, with what I consider the first true game changer since the Web — the smartphone — even the typical user has so many options that people are constantly accessing their technology multiple times an hour and studies show that rarely is a single technology used alone. The old television set, which produced “couch potatoes,” now is rarely, if ever, watched without an accompanying smartphone. In one study we discovered that nearly three in four young adults and teenagers check their smartphones every 15 minutes or less, no matter what they are doing at the time.

With a powerful device in our pocket or purse, we now have nearly infinite options when we “slide to unlock.” On my iPhone’s front screen alone I have 26 options including a camera, music player, text messager, email client, newsreader, and calendar. And that is one screen out of seven! Right now those apps are all clamoring for my attention and it is virtually impossible for me to ignore the red alert indicators, and the constant beeping, ringing and vibrating, telling me of even more incoming alerts. And this doesn’t count the fact that my brain keeps reminding me that I haven’t responded to that Facebook post by my daughter.

It is certainly great that we can connect with our world through so many vehicles and that we can find information about anything with a few taps of our fingers but research is indicating that having so many available options is causing us to try to cram more in the same time which can only be accomplished by multitasking or rapid task switching. While there is some contradictory evidence about whether we can truly multitask, it is clear that our brains are not evolving in a way to allow us to handle so many sources of information and communication. While Leakey talks about brains evolving over millions of years, we are looking at a brain that is incapable of handling the incoming onslaught at a level we used to devote to solitary television viewing. And that brain is not going to evolve any time soon.

We are faced with a dilemma. We have tools that allow, encourage and entreat us to attend to their alerts but yet we have a brain that simply cannot handle the incoming onslaught at any meaningful level without allocating scant attention to everything. At best we are able to give “continuous partial attention” to the incoming information and communication, which then may result in more shallow assimilation and the stress of constant task switching. In one recent study, for example, we found that teens and young adults, even knowing they were being observed while they were studying, were only able to focus for 3-5 minutes before having their attention diverted, usually to an incoming text alert or an internal reminder to check social media.

If we are to thrive with the nearly infinite technological options and our finite human brains, we have to learn (or relearn) the skill of attention. We have to learn how to avoid both the pesky external distractions as well as those silent internally self-generated interruptions. It will take practice. In recent Huffington Post blogs I have provided some ways to help ensure that you get the most from your brain including using “technology breaks” to learn to expand your ability to forego the alerts for up to 30 minutes as well as “brain resetting” breaks to allow your brain to calm from incessant multitasking and technology use every 90 minutes. With technology evolving so rapidly and our brains remaining the same, we have to learn to covet our most prized possession — our humanware — above the clarion call of our software and hardware.

Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. TEDWeekends will highlight some of today’s most intriguing ideas and allow them to develop in real time through your voice! Tweet #TEDWeekends to share your perspective or email to learn about future weekend’s ideas to contribute as a writer.

It’s Time to Be a Parent and Not a ‘Secret Diary Reader’: A Response to ‘Cyberparenting and the Risk of T.M.I.’

When I was a teenager, I remember that my sister, who is two years younger than I, kept a diary that she cleverly hid in her underwear drawer. Being a nosy older brother, and wanting to see if she wrote anything about me, I snuck into her room one day when the rest of the family was out (I was left home doing schoolwork as a punishment for the work I had failed to do the night before). Ostensibly locked, and with no key in sight, I jimmied open the diary — which took all of a minute — and, over the next hour, read every word she wrote. Turns out, the musings of a 14-year-old were pretty boring and to my chagrin, there was not a single mention of me.

I mention this ancient story because I read with interest a commentary by Pamela Paul in the New York Times the other day entitled, “Cyberparenting and the Risk of T.M.I.” In general, I felt that Ms. Paul’s piece was interesting in how it pointed out the issues ranging from becoming your child’s Facebook friend to having your teen migrate to newer sites such as Snapchat, Instagram and Tumblr and keep you out of the loop. I was particularly interested in her thoughts about Karen Sanders, the 49-year-old mother of two, who mentioned that her 15-year-old daughter would keep changing her passwords, denying access to her mother.

I was most struck by one remark in the article: “Like most savvy parents, Ms. Sanders has installed parental controls on the family computers, but has found the phrase ‘how to take parental controls off’ in their search history.” I actually had a good, hearty laugh at this, because this is a challenge that I give moms and dads when I speak with parent groups all over the world. I tell them that no matter what software they install on their child’s computer, that child can — and will — find a “workaround” in under a minute. I have even had parents email me to tell me they watched their children do just that and were amazed and a bit chagrined that they had underestimated their child’s own “savvy.”

In a late 2012 Huffington Post article entitled “The TALK Model of Parenting High-Tech Children, Teens and Young Adults,” I introduced a model of parenting that rests on two pillars: “T” for Trust and “K” for Communication (yes, I know that Communication starts with a “C,” but TALC was not a great acronym, as it suggested baby powder). When I introduce the model in my talks, I make sure that parents realize that by installing monitoring software — even if their son or daughter is aware of the software — what you are saying is “I don’t trust you to make the right choices.” This is a parenting issue tantamount to teaching your children to avoid drugs or even to look both ways before crossing the street.

My suggestion is to be that unique parent that talks to your children about dangers and works with your child from a young age to build their trust. That way, when they are at a party and are offered drugs or when they receive a communication that makes them feel uncomfortable or even upset, they will talk to the person who spent time developing their trust: you, their parent.

Here are two simple suggestions for developing that trust:

I always recommend that parents start to have weekly family discussions about technology use as soon as they allow their children to use a smartphone or to be on the Internet. This means that you start when you hand your 2-year-old an iPhone and allow her to play with an app or to email grandma and grandpa. The meetings must be short. When the kids are little, a meeting should last only a few minutes, and as they get older, the meeting might be as long as 15 minutes, but no longer, as that is pushing against a teenager’s ability to attend and focus without his/her thoughts wandering back to their virtual social worlds and what they might be missing. The set-up is simple. Everyone sits on the floor, which removes some of the feeling of powerful, taller mom and dad hovering over tiny children or even preteens. Everyone turns his or her technology off and then mom or dad asks a question. When kids are young, it might be something like, “What is your favorite iPhone app and why do you like it?” or “What fun videos did you watch this week?” As the kids get older, the meetings expand and the questions turn to more feelings-based issues such as, “I heard about someone being bullied online. Do you know anyone that has been cyberbullied? What happened and how did they feel?” or “Have you ever seen images online that made you feel uncomfortable? Can you tell me what you felt?” The bottom line is that once the question has been asked, the parent’s job is to sit quietly, with a neutral or positive expression and not say a word. This is the time to use your parental radar to really listen to your kids and assess any threats to their psyches.

Weekly family dinners can be used for similar discussions. Again, technology needs to be turned off — although a 1-2 minute tech break in the middle of dinner is advised to allow everyone to check in and reduce the anxiety they might be feeling about what they are missing out on in their virtual world — and parents ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. Research shows that four or more family meals a week help develop trust and a healthy family system which is how you get your children conditioned to talk to you when problems arise, which, trust me they will.

In a future post, I plan to discuss a new model that I have for parenting, or rather an addition to my TALK model. It involves being a GEEK, but not in the way that you might think. Stay tuned!

Addendum: By the way, my sister told me a few years ago that she knew I had looked at her diary as she saw the scratches on the lock and I didn’t fool her by putting it back exactly in the position it was where I found it. If you, the parent, think you can fool your kids by peeking at their history while they sleep or checking their Google searches or installing background software, you are probably not fooling anyone, particularly not your cyber-savvy child! You are only saying, “I don’t trust you to make the right decisions or come to me and talk through the issue and the options.”

How Much Technology Should You Let Your Child Use?

I recently read two articles that struck me in the way they examined the impact of technology on small children. In a New York Times article entitled, “The Child, the Tablet and the Developing Mind” Nick Bilton described watching his sister calm her four-year-old and seven-year-old children at a restaurant by providing each an iPad to use during dinner. Then, a week later, I stumbled across an article in the Daily Mail where Rebecca Seales and Eleanor Harding described a four-year-old girl who is being treated for iPad addiction. These two articles reminded me that a brand new invention, called the “iPotty,” was unveiled at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show which incorporates an iPad holder in a portable potty trainer to keep the child occupied while learning to go to the bathroom on his/her own and I felt as though I had hit the trifecta of today’s parental conundrum. Where do you draw the boundary between allowing your children to avail themselves of highly engaging technologies and excessive use or overuse of those very same highly engaging technologies?

I am privileged to speak to groups of students, parents and educators around the world mostly due to having researched and written books about the impact of technology for more than a quarter century. I actually started studying what has been termed the “psychology of technology” way back in 1984 when Apple introduced the Macintosh in a stunning Superbowl advertisement that promised us that, “1984 won’t be like 1984″ and tomorrow’s computers would herald a change from the humdrum world of IBM computers to the highly engrossing world of the Mac. And, indeed, it did change the world. And what followed were even more and better tools that moved us from a mouse and keyboard to a touch screen on a device that we can carry with us 24/7/365.

I talk to parents about how technology is such an interesting double-edged sword. On the one hand there are more apps than one could ever want to teach your children math, science, reading and a host of other skills. My granddaughter, who just turned a year old, loves math apps and Paint Sparkles as well as trying to follow the swimming fish on the iPad screen. I have watched even younger children grab an iPhone or iPad and touch and swipe and find their favorite games or videos in seconds and then sit absorbed for long periods of time.

The critical questions are: Is this bad for our children? Is it wrong to provide them the most up-to-date tools for both entertainment and teaching? Is it wrong to want to see our children smile and grin as they watch their favorite videos? The little girl in the UK who was being treated for iPad addiction is one example of what can happen if a child is left to play with these toys for hours on end. On the one hand it is comforting (and useful) to have your child so easily entertained. After all, isn’t that what we used to do with the television? When mom or dad needed some time to make dinner or do a bit of work they knew that they could sit their child in front of a Disney video and they would have a respite while their little couch potato sat absorbed.

The new touch screen gadgets offer a different experience and one that I tell parents demands more structure. Television is a passive medium and, as such, requires less use of certain brain areas than active media such as iPads, iPhones and computers. Compared to gazing slack eyed at the TV screen, making decisions about what to touch and where to swipe activate different areas of the prefrontal cortex, not to mention what it does in the amygdala in producing emotional reactions to these decisions. And we see what happens if you don’t limit these active participation. The child continues to be reinforced in the highly engaging e-world and more mundane worlds, such as playing with toys or watching TV, pale in comparison.

When I talk to parents I discuss three main issues that can arise from allowing their children to overuse technology:

Lack of time for essential personal interactions in the real world
Lack of time for creative thought and mind wandering
Lack of time for calming overactive brains

Although e-communication is not that prevalent among young children, the overuse of technology keeps them from spending time playing with their parents, siblings or peers. As these young children grow up and embrace electronic communication, as do their older preteen and teenage siblings (a typical teen would rather connect with their friends through texting and social media than face-to-face), they are sending and receiving messages behind glass screens. And behind a screen you do not see anyone but yourself reflected back. You don’t have a sense of the “context” that the recipient finds himself in nor do you have an understanding of how your message impacts that person. And adding in the occasional LOL or smiley face is not sufficient. Without this contextual information from those receiving your messages, you will have a very difficult time learning the pragmatics of communication including an understanding of the impact that your words have on the other person as well as the niceties of back-and-forth communication. Learning these skills was far easier before technology arrived and we parked ourselves and our children in front of those high-def screens.

Our brains have a specialized mechanism, called the Default Mode Network, which has been appraised as being operational during daydreaming, mind wandering and other non-task-oriented behaviors. If you are constantly and actively making decisions about what to do on an iPad, you will not activate the DMN which neuroscientists are now understanding keeps your mind focused and does not allow for the types of “ah ha” experiences gleaned during mind wandering.

Finally, neuroscientists have begun to show evidence that interactions with technology over-stimulate your brain. Dr. Gary Small at UCLA demonstrated this with brain scans of older adults who had never used the Internet showing more activity when using Google than when reading a book. Other studies have validated that the constant task switching afforded by multi-screen technologies activates more of your brain than simply working on a single task to completion.

What is the solution? I tell parents that children need to use technology at a ratio of 1 to 5 meaning that for every minute of tech use there should be an equivalent 5 minutes of time spent doing something else including talking to people, interacting with toys that promote creativity (and mind wandering) and doing activities that calm an overactive brain. So, if your child uses an iPad for 30 minutes (my recommendation of the maximum time for a child up to around four or five-years-old) then he or she should do some other activities for 150 minutes to balance out their brains and to allow for practice communicating and mind wandering. As the child gets older, the ratio starts to change and around the time your child is a preteen the ratio is usually about half and half. When technology becomes more prevalent in the teen school and social life that ratio flips to 5 to 1 with teens still needing time away from technology but also needing to connect with their schoolwork and their virtual social worlds.

One further piece of the puzzle concerns the amount of time spent using technology before taking breaks. Dr. Nathaniel Kleitman was well known for his work on sleeping behavior, teaching us that our sleep comes in roughly 90-minute cycles, each culminating in a dream state. Kleitman also talked about a BRAC — Basic Rest and Activity Cycle — that we maintain during the day that is also around 90 minutes. After about 90 minutes of technology interaction we all need a short rest–I advocate about 10 minutes–and neuroscience can tell us what we can do to calm our brains and make them more available for completing our work in an expeditious manner. For example, a recent study by Dr. Richard Coyne and his colleagues showed that if you walk in nature your brain activity calms to a state of involuntary attention, which is much less activating and energizing. Other research has shown that looking at art, listening to or playing music, practicing a foreign language, exercising, meditating, taking a warm bath or shower, or even having a pleasant conversation with a friend face-to-face or on the phone calms your brain. And for an added bonus, many of these activities have also been shown to enable your Default Mode Network. Many people report that they get their most creative ideas when wandering in nature or taking a hot shower or bath. Neuroscientists agree.

The bottom line is that we need to start taking care of our children’s brains — and our own — as early as possible. Start when they are little with technology in moderation and opportunities for mind wandering, creative activities and your child will grow up with solid communication and thinking skills.

The TALK Model of Parenting High-Tech Children, Teens and Young Adults

In a typical family system there should be a hierarchy of knowledge and power with the parents at the top and the children at the bottom. When it comes to technology, however, often that hierarchy gets turned upside down. When children know more about technology than their parents, parents can feel intimidated by how facile their children are with new media, often even before the parents know that something new exists. My computer consultant, Michael, is 10 and he has been helping me out of technology problems since he was 9. This is not a joke. He simply knows more about it than I do and he has been extremely helpful and knowledgeable, regardless of the problem I present.

Dealing with technology in a family system takes special care and in my 2008 book, Me, MySpace, and I: Parenting the Net Generation, I introduced the TALK Model of Parenting. I realize that MySpace is not the rage it once was, and four years in real time is equal to decades in techno-time, but the model is still valid and useful in our post-MySpace, social media, electronically-tethered world. Here are the components:

“T” is for Trust

With the media constantly highlighting scary aspects of the online world — particularly for teens — it is imperative that parents develop an environment of trust between themselves and their high-tech children, teens and even young adults. In a perfect world, parents should start the process by instituting weekly family meetings as soon as their children use ANY form of media or technology. Yes, this includes television. As soon as your kids start watching TV or you hand them your iPhone or iPad to keep them occupied, you should have family meetings. When kids are young these meetings should last no more than five minutes and the time should increase to no more than 15 minutes when they become teenagers. Everyone sits on the floor — roughly equalizing height and, therefore, perceived power — and the parents start by asking a question about technology. With little ones it might be something along the lines of, “What is your favorite TV show and what do you like about it?” My rule is that parents ask a question and then sit back and listen with a nonjudgmental attitude (and a smile on their faces) and use their parental radar to listen carefully for signs of potential issues. Being nonjudgmental helps develop trust. As the children age the talks lengthen and the questions focus more on psychological issues. For a teenager, I might ask something like, “I have heard that some kids get bullied online. Do you know anyone who has been bullied? What happened and how did they feel (or how do you think they felt)?” Then sit back and listen (and smile). Weekly meetings develop trust so that when your child encounters something online or anywhere in their electronic world that makes them uncomfortable they will come to you for your help.

There are also some parenting strategies that make developing trust more difficult. Checking your child’s computer without their knowledge, installing technological filters (regardless of whether your child is aware of them or not) and severe, reactive punishments for misuse of technology all work against developing a sense of trust. Don’t believe that your children won’t know if you check up on them clandestinely. They will figure it out. Don’t believe that if you install a filter on your child’s computer they won’t be able to figure out a workaround. Google “workaround” followed by the name of any tracking program, and you will find websites that show how to disable the software or even how to circumvent it without the installer (you) being aware that it is no longer functional.

“A” is for Assess

You should not allow children or even teenagers to use technology behind closed doors. Research shows that those children who have technology in their bedrooms — in what I term a “TechnoCocoon” — are more likely to have problems surrounding their use including sleep difficulties and misuse of the technology. Ideally, technology should be placed in a common area and parents should be able to observe at any time. If that is not possible, and the technology needs to be in a bedroom, parents need to institute an open-door policy whereby they are allowed to walk in and look at what is on the screen or examine text messages or whatever activity is ongoing. Beware that your kids may suddenly close windows or hide screens when you walk by. Practice good behavioral parenting and set up contingencies for this occurrence. For example, if you think that your teenager is closing screens he doesn’t want you to see, then set up a contingent punishment schedule such as: “The first time you close a screen you will lose your computer use for an hour. The second time it will double to two hours, and then four hours and so on.” By the way, if you have no idea how to tell if your teenager closed a screen, ask him to show you how to access the history on his computer. That’s where you will find the screens that were open and are now closed. If the history has been cleared that is a sign that your teen doesn’t want you to see what he has been doing (and also should lead to the same penalties).

I highly recommend that you practice what is called “co-viewing,” which is a term from television research where you watch TV with your kids and then discuss what you just saw on the screen in order to help them better understand and integrate the show material. You can do the same with computers. Sit down with your kids and ask them to show you stuff on the computer, smartphone or tablet — interesting websites, new apps, new games — and then talk to them about how they are using them and what they feel about any potential issues of problems.

As a special case of “A” you should plan to visit your teen’s or young adult’s social media sites. I tell parents to inform their kids that in 24 hours from now, you will sit with them and go through their Facebook page or whatever social media they use. This gives them time to clean it up and make it parent-ready. Have them show you what is there. Click on the links to friends’ pages, particularly any “friends” that you do not know personally. And let them know that after this first look-see you will be stopping in periodically with no warning to see how they are doing. This should be fodder for a family discussion!

“L” is for Learn

You have to learn about the technologies that your kids are using. You don’t have to be an expert but you do need to keep tabs on what is new in their virtual worlds. The best way is to ask your kids regularly to show you new stuff. Over time, they develop a sense of pride in their knowledge and skills and also you develop more of that trust that is one cornerstone of this model. Also ask your kids’ friends parents what their kids are using and make it a habit to check in with any families where your kids spend a lot of time. When my younger daughter was growing up she used to do her homework at a neighbor’s house with a girl in her classes and a third girl, whose parents did not allow her any Internet access during the school week, often joined them. Guess what they were doing? Yep! Hanging out on the Internet. You need to form an alliance with your children’s parents and make a pact that everyone share what the kids are doing with technology at their homes, whether it is watching television (and particularly what channels they are allowed to watch), playing video games, surfing the net or using their smartphones. It is difficult enough to establish technology rules and guidelines for your own home, but it is imperative that you factor in other places where your children may encounter technology.

“K” is for Communicate

The other cornerstone of the TALK Model of Parenting is communication. (Yes, I know that “communication” starts with a “C” and not a “K,” but a TALC Model of Parenting sounds too much like baby powder.) Communication means making opportunities to talk to your children about technology. The weekly family meetings that I described earlier will promote communication, particularly if you spend the majority of the time listening rather than commenting. Family dinners are an excellent time to talk about technology. Once again, it is important that dinner be a time without technology (and that means that mom and dad can’t check their phones during dinner and the television must be turned off). If your family is having trouble ditching technology for a 45-minute dinner then try using “tech breaks” that I described in an earlier Huffington Post blog entitled, “Helping Your Children Study Amidst Distracting Technologies.”

The key to communicating with your kids about technology is to ask them lots of open-ended questions relevant to their developmental age. As I mentioned earlier with family meetings, when they are young, ask very concrete questions such as “What is your favorite app on mommy’s iPad?” As they get older you can ask more “social” questions such as “What’s your favorite TV show?” or “Why do you like to text your friends?” or “What is fun about watching videos on YouTube?” or even, as they get older, “Do you know anyone who has been bullied online? What happened and how did they feel?” You can see that as your children get older, the topics evolve and involve more processing of their feelings. If you have been working on developing trust then they will be eager to talk about these issues. It is really all about Trust and “K”ommunication! Use any opportunity to foster both and don’t let your kids escape through technology.

The American Pediatric Association says to avoid television and other media technologies for infants and children under age 2. That is a great guideline but, as all parents know, kids love technology and are attracted to it no matter what it is. And with such attractive technologies as tablets, smartphones and other portable technologies, it is very easy to entertain your child with technology. I have two rules of thumb that I teach parents. First and foremost is that when you infant or child is using technology they should not be alone. You should practice co-viewing and sit with your child and interact with them about what they are seeing and hearing. I just sat with a 6-month-old and tried out an iPad app called “Laugh & Learn (by Fisher-Price). All it involves is touching the screen to release a colorful heart, square, triangle or circle, which jump around and send out all sort of sparkles and talk to you telling what they are and what they are doing. Simple by adult standards, but the 6-month-old loved it for about five minutes. Yes, this is a form of media, but it is also a learning tool and stimulates the imagination.

My second rule of thumb is that the ratio of screen time to real-world time should be one to five for the youngest ones, meaning that for every minute of screen time there should be five minutes of non-screen time. So, the 6-month-old now needs some real-world time for 25 minutes. I took him outside, showed him flowers, let him try to shove one in his mouth, and then had him practice crawling (you should see how hard he will try to crawl to get at that iPad!).

As children get older they are going to want more media so the 1:5 ratio now starts to change to 2:5 and so on, so that when kids are in their preteens, the ratio should be 5:5 and then as they get older it will, by the nature of social media and e-communication, should end up at 5:1 when they are teenagers. HOWEVER, and this is important, the majority of this tech time should be spent co-viewing.

There are many ways to parent your high-tech children, teens and young adults surrounding their world of technology. The TALK Model is just one way that I have found helps parents flexibly engage their children while managing their technology use.

Helping Your Children Study Amidst Distracting Technologies

Recently, my research team observed nearly 300 middle school, high school and university students studying in their homes. To keep it simple, we asked them to study “something important” for only 15 minutes and told them that we would be sitting behind them and observing. This situation should have put them into serious study mode, not wanting to look bad by not studying. Every minute, we noted whether they were, indeed, “on task” and studying, what distracting technologies were in their study environment, if they were texting or listening to music or watching television or looking at websites. We also asked about their use of study strategies and their preference for working on a single task or switching back and forth from task to task. Our goal was to see if students could concentrate for the short 15-minute study period or if they couldn’t focus and attempt to identify the main distracting culprits.

The results were startling and sobering:

• Students of all ages were able to focus and stay on task for an average of only three minutes before being distracted.

• The main distractors turned out to be information coming from their smartphones and their computers.

Almost as an afterthought, we also asked about their school grades and examined what activities during the 15-minute study period might separate good and bad students. Some of what we found surprised us and some provided sobering thoughts for the future of our students.

Once again, the results were fascinating. The good students were those who:

• Stayed on task for longer periods of time before becoming distracted and

• Had strategies that they applied while studying.

The bad students — those with lower GPAs — were those who:

• Consumed more media of all types during a typical day,

• Had a preference for working on several tasks at the same time and switching back and forth between them.

One additional result stunned us: If the student checked Facebook just once during the 15-minute study period, he or she had a lower GPA. It didn’t matter if they had Facebook on their computer screen the entire time or if they just checked it once on their computer or phone. Checking in with social media appears to be a marker for poorer school performance.


What I am saying is that electronic communication, particularly social media — which has reached nearly 100% penetration among preteens and teens — has a strong attraction and draw and it appears that young students can’t help themselves from checking it frequently. Our research shows that the vast majority of teenagers check their e-communication tools every 15 minutes or less and if they can’t check in that often, they get highly anxious.


I can tell you what it is not. It is not about taking away all technology and it is not about making them finish their homework before they even get to play video games, check Facebook, text their friends and use their various technological appendages (yes, these devices are every bit as important to them as an arm or a leg). That strategy will not work because even if you remove all technology from their study environment out of sight is not only NOT out of mind but it is FIRMLY IN MIND. In fact, our research shows that for teens and young adults thinking about what they might be missing out on in their virtual worlds — often referred to as FOMO, or fear of missing out — is anxiety-provoking and distracting, perhaps even more distracting than watching their smartphone announce a new text message or phone call.

The solution is a bit counterintuitive, but it works. It is called a “Technology Break,” or a “Tech Break” for short. Here is how it works. As soon as your son or daughter is ready to do their homework, they get a 1-2 minute tech break (this is negotiable and longer tech breaks can be used as a reinforcement for good studying behavior) during which they can use their phone, computer or whatever technology they desire. At this point, all technology is turned off including the TV, music, smartphone and computer. If the computer is needed for homework, make sure that only the necessary applications or websites are open and nothing else. Have your son or daughter set their phone on silent and set an alarm to ring in 15 minutes. When it rings, they get a tech break to check in with their phone, their computer, whatever for the same one to two minutes and then the process begins again. I like to start with a one-minute tech break and 15-minute study period and then slowly lengthen the study period by about five minutes every few days until you get to about 30 minutes, which is the maximum time most kids can stay disconnected. You can also increase the tech break time from one minute up to whatever you want. Use this as a negotiating tool with your children and as a bonus for good studying behavior.

Tech Breaks sound strange and some parents worry that by doing so they are giving in to their kids, but in fact the opposite is true. Kids appreciate knowing exactly when they will get to check in with their virtual worlds and that it will not be an undefined long time such as “when your homework is done, you can use your phone.” It is adaptable, fair to both parents and kids, and it works.

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