A number of studies have shown the connection between stimuli and executive function. One of the most famous was conducted in 2011 and is commonly known as the “Spongebob study.” The research revealed that four-year-olds experience impaired executive function after watching the cartoon for just 10 minutes. In a separate 2011 study, researchers found that teens who are addicted to the Internet have abnormal neural pathways, which are tied to executive function.
While scientists have not yet looked at how this stress affects executive function in the long term, there’s reason to think it might. This has to do with our understanding of neuroplasticity, or how an individual’s brain changes over time depending on how that person uses it. During adolescence, each person’s brain weeds out the pathways that it uses less often in a process called neural pruning, said Gary Small, a psychiatry professor and director of the University of California, Los Angeles, Longevity Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. “It’s hard to imagine that the way you’re using your brain at a young age isn’t going to affect the pruning process,” he added. In other words, if you spent your youth in front of screens, it would make sense that your adult brain would be hard-wired to process information at a frenzied pace.
But Daniel Willingham, psychology professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, says it’s still too early to draw conclusions about any long-term effects. “I don’t think there’s really good evidence that there is any fundamental change to cognition as a consequence of technology,” he said. “Anyone who says anything about the long-term effects is going to be guessing.” Conclusions found by researchers like the authors of the Spongebob study only factor in short-term impacts on executive function, Willingham said. “The thing about that study is that the measures were taken right after the kids watched the videos, so a better interpretation is that Spongebob makes you tired,” he added. If technology had changed kids’ brains, we would be seeing more impacts of the inattention in places other than in classroom behavior, Willingham said. “You'd predict a significant dive in standardized test scores over the time frame you're guessing kids have been heavy users of digital technology,” he said. The data just doesn’t reflect that so, the jury is still out when it comes to technology’s long-term effects on the brain.
Still, in the short term, kids are having trouble paying attention in school. Eyes flit to screens and fingers gravitate toward keyboards before, during, and after lessons. “It’s a big problem if the only way teachers can get students’ attention is through song and dance,” Willingham said.
Educators are incorporating iPads and computers into STEM curricula because they present options for different skills and ways of learning. “Sometimes [iPad and computer] games can help students’ visual-spatial perception and processing speed, and that can be an advantage,” Small said. For example, he mentioned one study that found that surgeons that play videogames more often make fewer errors in the operating room. Another study used a computer game called NeuroRacer that actually increased adult subjects’ ability to multitask.