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What Notifications Are Doing To Our Brains – Jennifer Oaten

Mobile phones have had a massive impact on our lives, bringing the benefits of being connected across countries, having access to information 24 hours a day and being able to share images, videos, opinions and information worldwide in seconds. Mobiles mean we are all photographers, have a digital map at ready access and can be influences or bloggers without any training. ChatGPT now presents a whole new bank of benefits to take us forward into the future. Imagine a day without technology, no texts, no emails, no TikTok, no online banking, no TEAMs meetings and no knowing what fancy meal your friends are having for lunch. The young of today are growing up in a world where mobiles, social media, and constant connectivity are the norm.

But have you ever stopped to consider the impact mobile phones are having on you and your family?

Dr Mark Williams

Dr Mark Williams is an internationally recognised professor of cognitive neuroscience with over 25 years of experience conducting behavioural and brain imaging research. He is the author of The Connected Species and is one of the world authorities on the teen brain, having published more than 70 scientific articles on the subject. Santa Maria was fortunate to have him share his wisdom with Year 9 students, staff and parents. He shared his insight into the complex relationship between the digital world and adolescent brain development.

Dr Williams’ research includes the concept of brain plasticity. During adolescence, the brain is highly adaptable and open to change. This period of neurodevelopment is crucial for forming neural connections that shape a teenager’s future cognitive and emotional abilities.

Excessive screen time and digital addiction can disrupt this process. Dr Williams’ research has found that when teenagers spend too much time on screens, it can lead to changes in brain structure and function, making it more difficult for them to connect, focus, concentrate, regulate their emotions and learn. One key area discussed was notifications received on devices and their impact.

Whether it’s a buzz, bell, or ding, getting a phone notification can be pretty exciting. Whether a text message, social media update, email alert, or mobile phone notification, all these can have a significant impact on our brains and cognitive functions, including:

1. Increased Stress

Phone notifications send our brains into overdrive and trigger the release of stress hormones like cortisol. When we hear a notification sound or feel our phone vibrate, our brain interprets it as something that demands immediate attention. This can put us in a constant state of alertness, leading to heightened stress. Notifications trigger a release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that can create a sense of anticipation and addiction, leading people to check their phones compulsively in anticipation of new notifications. This can lead to a sense of social pressure to always be connected and responsive.

2. Lack of Concentration

Notifications can significantly impact our focus and concentration. When we are engrossed in a task, and a notification suddenly appears, our brain’s attention is momentarily diverted. Even if we resist the urge to check the notification, it takes time for our brain to refocus on the task at hand, often resulting in forgetfulness and decreased efficiency. Regaining focus after such interruptions is a time-consuming process. Research suggests that having a mobile device on the table during a conversation tends to hinder meaningful discussions. Our attention becomes fixated on the device, preventing us from fully engaging in the ongoing conversation. Moreover, notifications can disrupt activities that require our undivided attention, such as driving, potentially leading to risky behaviour.

3. Less Productive

The urge to check a notification is very powerful. Many people attempt to multitask by responding to notifications while performing other tasks. However, the human brain is not designed for effective multitasking, and attempting to do so can lead to decreased performance in tasks. Constantly switching between tasks in response to notifications can lead to cognitive overload and decreased effectiveness. Managing notifications and deciding whether to respond to them can consume cognitive resources. Constantly switching attention between tasks and notifications can increase cognitive load, making it harder to think and process information effectively.

4. Impacted Learning

Notifications have a significant impact on memory and learning. The beeping sounds associated with notifications have been found to erase the last 90 seconds of learning, causing interruptions that disrupt the process of consolidating short-term memories into long-term ones. This interference can potentially impair memory recall. Additionally, we often assume that digital information will always be easily accessible in the future, which is why we do not consider it as committed memory. We believe that we can access this information anytime on our smartphones.

5. Disturbed Sleep

Notifications, especially those received late at night, can disrupt sleep patterns. The blue light emitted by screens can also interfere with the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. Sleep is a crucial time for transferring information to our long-term memory, starting with the most recent things we have learned. If your daughter doesn’t get enough sleep, she is missing out on transferring the information she learned earlier in the day to her long-term memory. A great way to facilitate this transfer is by reviewing notes just before sleep, ensuring they make their way into her long-term memory. It is a simple yet effective strategy for optimising memory retention.

Adequate sleep also plays a crucial role in promoting positive mental health, and parents have the power to influence this important factor.

6. Health Impacts

Constantly checking notifications can lead to poor posture and repetitive movements as people hunch over their phones for extended periods. The content of notifications can also affect emotions. Receiving negative or upsetting messages can lead to mood disturbances, while positive messages can improve mood. Over time, the constant dopamine release associated with notifications can lead to addictive behaviours, where individuals feel compelled to check their phones even when they don’t want to.

7. Limited Deep Reading

Continual notifications mean young people spend time skimming content online rather than reading. When we read on paper, we read far more deeply and learn to recall more information. Reading is not just about the words but about understanding others and their emotions, how they feel and the way they connect and build relationships with others.

Strategies for parents:

  • Establish Clear Boundaries: Create specific timeframes for checking notifications, especially during study or when focusing on important tasks. Ensure your child’s study area is free from distractions, including mobile phones.
  • Customise Notification Settings: Personalise notification preferences to receive only essential alerts and disable non-essential ones. Remove notifications from smartwatches.
  • Utilise ‘Do Not Disturb’ Mode: Activate ‘Do Not Disturb’ or similar modes during designated periods to minimise interruptions on phones.
  • Manage Screen Time: Set daily limits for screen time to reduce overall phone usage. Install a screen-time monitoring app on all devices to track usage.
  • Prioritise Quality Sleep: Avoid phone usage before bedtime to ensure restful sleep. Keep all technology out of the bedroom.
  • Encourage Reading: Foster a habit of reading fiction for at least 30 minutes a day instead of scrolling on devices.
  • Embrace Mindfulness: Cultivate mindfulness techniques to stay present and resist the constant urge to check phones.

Mark Williams’ research on the impact of technology on teenage brains offers valuable insights into the complex relationship between adolescents and the digital world. While technology can provide numerous benefits, it also poses risks to cognitive development and mental health. Parents, educators, and teenagers can work together to ensure that the digital revolution enhances rather than hinders the growth and wellbeing of our young people.

Continuous device usage is believed to contribute to early-onset dementia. Taking control of your phone notifications can lead to improved mental health in just four weeks. Don’t wait; prioritise your brain for a long and healthy life.

the Winter Appeal and Outreach Mass at Santa Maria College.

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