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Technology and Cognitive Function: Implications for Adolescents in the Information Age

Rachel Ma
River Hill High School
Kathryn L. Mills
Oregon Health & Science University
Mary Jane Sasser
River Hill High School

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Technology undoubtedly plays a crucial role in everyday life, whether used for work,
social media, or entertainment. The Millennial generation, currently composed of teens and
young adults born near the turn of the century, are at the forefront of the technology boom.
Today, nine out of ten adolescents own or have access to a mobile phone (Lenhart 2015). The
question is, how exactly do these digital devices affect our teenage generation?
In todays society, technology is an undeniable necessity, and at the forefront of
technology use are adolescents. The malleability of the teenage brain is an important factor to
consider in the Information Age. While adolescents use technology frequently, their brains are
still developing, leaving them increasingly susceptible to the adverse effects that may accompany
extensive use. While some may argue that there is little effect of digital strain in our society,
clearly there is more to this issue than meets the eye. Adolescents frequent use of information
and communications technology, specifically computers and mobile phones, directly impairs
cognitive function due to digital multitasking, information overload, and sleep disturbances.
Background
The phase of adolescence, as further discussed in this paper, differs vastly from childhood
or adulthood. Adolescence is characterized by increased plasticity in the brain, meaning brain
development is not purely the result of set genes but is also affected by results from outside
experience (Kolb and Gibb, 2011). Kathryn Mills, currently researching the effect of the internet
on brain development, describes adolescence as a naturally malleable period often defined as
beginning around puberty and ending when one obtains a relatively stable role in society
(2014). The prefrontal and parietal cortices in the brain, which are responsible for most of the
information processing and response in adolescents, do not fully complete development until the
adult years. Thus, the adolescent brain is characterized by features still under construction, able
to be influenced through external factors and not quite as capable as that of an adults.
Sleep is characterized by a circadian rhythm which describes a biological process
occurring over a time frame of twenty-four hours, seen through physical, mental, and behavioral
changes. Disruption of such circadian rhythms has been shown to negatively impact sleep quality
and neurobehavioral operation (Adams et al., 2013). One of the main sources of disruption is a
result of short-wavelength light, the type of light emitted by phone and laptop screens. According
to Rahman et al., circadian phase resetting is sensitive to visual short wavelengths (450-480

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nm) (2013). Bright nocturnal light has been known to suppress melatonin, a hormone which is
normally secreted in response to darkness and regulates circadian rhythms (Kozaki et al., 2015).
When melatonin is suppressed by blue light, the urge to sleep is diminished, which skews the
overall circadian rhythm of an individual.
The terms and concepts defined in this section serve as a basis to the research in this
paper, in relation to the impact of technology in the adolescent stage to sleep, multitasking, and
information overload.
A survey intending to examine the relationships within adolescent technology use and the
extent to which it impacts their daily life was conducted during April 2016. Survey questions
were chosen from the Parent/Teen Cell Phone Survey 2009 for the Pew Internet & American Life
Project as well as the 2011 Bedroom Sleep Poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation.
The audience consists of River Hill High School students and several middle school students
from Clarksville and Folly Quarter Middle School. A total of 129 responses was secured.
The data collected provided examined several aspects of the impact of technology on
adolescents. While the sample size of 129 is fairly accurate, one of the major drawbacks of the
data involves not being able to reach as many high schoolers as needed to fully examine their
technology use. Instead of targeting all age groups to compare results in a single survey, separate
surveys should be used. This method would better ensure accurate data without being skewed,
such as by including middle schoolers who may not own cell phones.
Additionally, the data collection would benefit from being moved outside of River Hill
High School and Clarksville Middle for a wider audience and therefore larger sample size.
Society today has a general understanding that multitasking creates unwanted effects on
focus and concentration, leading to the to the precept that one should not attempt multiple tasks
at once in fear of failing to completely and satisfactorily execute any single task. Based on prior
research, this idea is completely supported: trying to carry out more than one task has led to
deficits in cognitive performance (Cheshire 2015). These impairments are observed in
performance as well as in alterations in the neural processes associated with focused attention,
maintenance of short term memory, as well as overall cognitive function. Multitasking can
potentially pose a greater problem in adolescence, as relevant cognitive abilities are still

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developing at this time. Indeed, adolescents, compared with adults, show greater performance
deficits while performing multiple tasks at once. One widely-understood connection is that of
computer or mobile phone use and multitasking. These devices are tools to provide ways to
procrastinate, juggle social and work life, and keep people up-to-date with news. It is no
exaggeration to say that technology has facilitated multitasking greatly in our informationhungry society, and adolescents are the group arguably most affected by this situation.
Technology plays an important role furthering multitasking and harming cognitive memory and
performance, which is especially prominent within still-developing adolescents.
Prior research in multitasking has shown an established connection between task juggling
and performance. Past research on experimental studies concludes that multitasking can lead to
detrimental effects on immediate cognitive performance (George and Odgers 2015). As seen in
the studies quoted by George and Odgers, the act of switching tasks has been shown to impair
cognitive performance mainly through increasing error rates and the amount of time it takes to
complete a given task. According to Cheshire, the weight of evidence indicates that frequent
multitaskers are less able to filter out irrelevant environmental stimuli and as a result are more
susceptible to making mistakes during tasks that require switching mental focus repeatedly when performing multiple tasks that compete for attention and memory, performance declines
(2015). A current study by Moisala et al. found that higher daily media multitasking (MMT) in
adolescents and young adults are associated with poorer task performance and increased brain
activity in right prefrontal regions (2016). The study found MMT is associated with behavioral
distractablity and does not translate to performance benefits. Despite stimulation of certain
brain regions, multitasking appears to have an overall detrimental effect on brain function in
carrying out tasks.
Technology contributes to the heavy multitasking of both adolescents and adults.
Technology is a source of multitasking perpetuation, providing distractions that are demanding
on working memory. An important aspect of technology use is increased communication
overload in the form of chat and email messages. An overload of communication is detrimental
to efficiency and work speed. Dr. Larry Rosen, recognized as an international expert in the
Psychology of Technology, explains that research appears to show that the mere presence of
technology promotes the need to task switch (personal communication, December 12, 2015). In
todays society, there is clearly a pronounced involvement of technology in our tendencies to task

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switch. Adolescents are early adaptors of new technologies and more likely to use technology to
help forget about personal problems than older adults, according to Van Volkom, Stapley, and
Amaturo (2014). Using phones or laptops as a medium of distraction is a concern for all ages,
but particularly adolescents.
Multitasking is involved in a direct communication to the brain and as a result define how
adolescents respond to tasks. Regions of the prefrontal cortex are known to be responsible for
different jobs such as maintaining information in working memory and keeping attention on
tasks (Siddiqui et al., 2016). Moreover, the adolescent brain is still developing, and thus cannot
perform at full power as adults when performing multitasking-related jobs. According to a study
Multitasking During Social Interactions in Adolescence and Early Adulthood, both adults and
adolescents were less proficient at performing both a social and non-social task when they were
under high cognitive load, with adolescents showing a greater decrement in performance as
compared to adults (Mills et al., 2015). Due to the unfinished growth of the crucial prefrontal and
parietal cortices, short-term memory and attention when faced with tasks is a problem for
adolescent multitaskers. As connections between regions involved in working memory and
attention continue to strengthen with age, it may be that these less-development connections
hinder adolescents' ability to multitask. Myelination, the formation of a myelin sheath wrapping
around the axons in the brain, greatly increases impulse conduction in neurons and also allows
for quicker recovery time between signals fired (Morell and Quarles 1999). However, this
process continues from childhood and does not completely finish until adulthood, leading to the
conclusion that adolescents are at a disadvantage regarding information processing.
Todays society developments are largely reliant on work quality and efficiency. Whether
or not multitasking facilitates or hinders productivity is debatable. However, there is no doubt
that technology is greatly contributing to task-switching. One in four adolescents report going
online almost constantly; technology is an ever-present part of our daily lives. As Strayer and
Watson affirm, heavy multitaskers do not improve in their abilities to filter information; their
brains actually become worse at switching between tasks (2016). However, multitasking may not
be directly affecting many teens behavior, as the current survey conducted found slightly over
50% of respondents affirming the statement I get irritated when a call or text on my cell phone
interrupts me while 30% disagrees. The larger percentage of disagrees than attesting to using
the phone to keep in touch or as entertainment indicates that technology as a source of

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interruption and irritation is not as uniformly agreed upon. A larger percentage of teens disagreed
with the statement, pointing to more of the population that can avoid feelings of irritation and
distraction when using their mobile devices. However, personal opinions regarding technology
distraction do not define the true impact of multitasking. Regardless of whether multitasking is a
friend or foe, technology must be seriously considered as a factor affecting everyday
multitasking ability in peoples lives.

Within our information-clogged society, it is becoming increasingly difficult to escape


from the constant news flow from mobile devices and computers. It is undeniable that mass
media is an important part of most peoples day-to-day lives. This phenomena happening in
todays society is classified as information overload, widely thought of as an inability to make
rational decisions, with the extreme amounts of information that we process in our daily lives.
Especially important is the impact of an overload of information on adolescents, whose brains
are constantly being shaped by the information around them. Technology plays a prominent role
in the concept of information overload, the effects of which directly impact adolescent stress
levels and their ability to process information.
The concept of information overload refers to a situation seen in increasing amounts in
todays society, and is experienced by teens and adults alike. In the current study, more than 80%
of respondents affirmed the statement I like to use my cell phone to keep in touch no matter
where I am. Clearly, the tendency to keep in touch or stay connected to the outside world is a
trait that many respondents affirm, signifying the widespread desire to use technology to stay
informed and up to date. Information overload is a concept characterized by an excess of data,
overriding the human brains information processing capacity. David Shenk, an author who
outlined the concept of information overload, goes further to claim that technology, introduced as
hyperproduction and hyperdistribution mechanisms, inevitably raced ahead of human
processing ability (2003). According to Shenks proposal of this phenomenon, humans began to
produce information faster than can be processed, creating a disconnect between an individuals
cognition and information it needs to comprehend. This leads to the increasing difficulties of
trying to disconnect oneself from the constant exposure and analyzing of information.

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In perspective, information overload causes adverse affects regarding processing and
emotion, especially among adolescents. Tamness study illuminates the structural maturation of a
fronto-parietal cortical network in the brain, assisting working memory development (2013). The
prefrontal and parietal cortices continuing development may be the reason behind impairments
teens face in certain situations. In a study exploring associations between technology use and
various mental symptoms in young adults, researchers found that overload in communication in
the form of chat or email messages interrupted other computer tasks, and the inability to find
time to answer each message promptly resulted in feelings of guilt, resentment, and stress
(Thomee et al., 2010). In todays age, it is not uncommon to experience being bombarded with
correspondence from work, family, acquaintances, and advertisements alike. Overload strains the
working brain and impacts stress levels, lowering efficiency.
Technology plays a prominent role in the amount of information exposed to society, and
thus it directly impacts the effects of overload. There exists Information Paralysis, when as
[technology] speeds up our world in the name of efficiency and productivity, it also constricts
rational thinking (Shenk, 2003). Such a scenario is counterintuitive to the purpose of
technology. People are less likely to be able to make quick decisions as a result of the plethora of
information attacking them from all sides. In addition, cue overload from media sources limits
memory in the information storage and retrieval. Memory stored in the hippocampus typically
requires a specific image or word cue, which triggers information retrieval (K. Mills, personal
communication, December 9, 2015). When exposed to extreme amounts of information cues,
memory is limited. Thus, the influence of technology in exposing mass media to audiences
renders them less able to make decisions and retrieve memory.
Information overload is an often overlooked, yet common aspect of daily life. This
phenomenon impacts a majority of people in industrialized nations as society is becoming
increasingly dependent on technology and up-to-date news and events. The proposition that the
huge amounts of information have surpassed human processing ability is completely fathomable
within recent years. While there is limited research on overload and its effects on the brain, the
connections between brain function and neurological ability to the amount of information
accessed plays a large part in discovering the true implications between technology and media
exposure to cognitive function.

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Sleep is a crucial part of growth, particularly human growth and development. Not only
does poor sleep contribute to fatigue and sleepiness during the daytime, it also affects
development of the body, including the brain, during adolescence. A major point to consider is
the effect of mobile phones and other forms of technology used before bed. Teens today have
the potential to be connected at any location, twenty-four hours a day, which has clear
implications for sleep (Adams et al. 2013). Based on research examining the connections
between technology and sleep, adolescents use of technology in the hours before sleep
contributes to circadian disruptions and result in fatigue and difficulties falling asleep.
Adolescents are undergoing a period of development and change, and sleep is affected
greatly throughout the process. An important point in the change that surrounds sleep involves a
shift in adolescents sleep schedules. Puberty triggers hormonal changes, delaying circadian
rhythms and causing a physiological drive toward later sleep and wake times (Gamble et al.,
2014). Sleep pressure, the feeling of needing to sleep, decreases in the teen as a result. According
to Adams et al., there is a misalignment between teenagers increasing insensitivity to sleep
pressure, causing later sleep times, and the societal requirements of waking up at earlier times
(2013). Additionally, the pressure of school and increasing work demand are factors that may
cause a teen to lose sleep.
Technology use conflicts with sleep quality when used at night. According to George and
Odgers, Nearly all (97%) of U.S. adolescents have some type of electronic media in their
bedrooms (2015). Adolescents are heavy users of [electronic devices]: 72% report using
cellphones and 60% report using laptops in the hour prior to sleep, according to Gamble et al.
(2014). Increasing night-time use of computers and mobile phones was associated with short
sleep duration on weekdays, as well as greater tiredness and less total sleep. The urge to wake in
order to check and respond to messages contributes to decreased sleep quality. The combination
of decreased quality and duration of sleep undoubtedly creates problems especially for stilldeveloping adolescents. Additionally, difficulties relaxing are a result of high quantities of phone
calls and messages: according to Thomee et al., difficulty relaxing and falling asleep was linked
to intense computer use (2010). The definite link between sleep disturbance and technology
usage is an issue present in many adolescents today. Due to their tendency to stay up later, many
problems that arise from technology use may have an increased affect on adolescents.

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Short wavelength light emitted from computers and phones is also related to sleep
disruption, along with other physical effects. As previously stated, short wavelength light
suppresses melatonin, the hormone secreted during nighttime that regulates sleep rhythms. A
study by Chang et al. tested participants reading a book on a light-emitting device (iPad) versus
reading a printed book in the hours before bedtime. Reading on the light-emitting device resulted
in delayed melatonin secretion (causing participants to stay awake), later timing of the circadian
clock, and reduced next morning alertness (2015). Therefore, the form of media also has an
impact on sleep: screens have been found to be guilty of disrupting sleep rhythms. Adams et al.
argue that Chronic, ill-timed exposure to short-wavelength light can cause a misalignment of
the circadian timing system, resulting in sleep issues and depressive symptomology (2013). The
implications of screen use can involve prolonged problems such as depression that extend
beyond simply fatigue.
The science behind short wavelength light and its effects is another facet of why phones
should be turned off at bedtime. The increasing importance of staying connected has clear
implications on sleep and the amount of exposure to technology before bed. Computer and phone
use affects a teen in adverse ways, limiting sleep quality and disrupting hormonal balances in the
body. Generally, it can be concluded that limiting exposure to technology usage and shortwavelength light before bedtime will benefit an adolescents mental and physical health.

The findings in this paper show how various aspects of technology use hinder cognitive
ability in the adolescent brain. Through facilitating multitasking, providing the means of
information overload, and disrupting sleep, adolescents daily functions are affected by their time
spent with a screen.
The findings in the data generally support the research in the paper as expected. While
teens do show influence from technology in certain areas such as using their phones for
communication with others or entertainment, they do not appear to show increased stress or
pressure to stay updated, therefore pointing to the conclusion that information overload is not
prevalent concern in adolescents, although it is present in some. The discrepancy in sleep hours
and the majority of adolescents using their phones before bedtime ties into the research on
circadian rhythm disruption. Phone screens may play into sleep disruption in hours slept on

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weekdays versus on weekends. Because the purpose of the research is to assess the different
impact technology may have on adolescents, the data successfully captures the important points
in my research such as multitasking, information overload, and sleep disruption.
Mobile phone and computer use as related to sleep disturbances, multitasking, and
information overload is related to a general negative affect in adolescent cognitive function. The
adolescent brain and its response to technology raises many implications on how the current
generation is affected by increasing prevalence of technology in everyday life. Although
multitasking has been previously established to be detrimental to cognitive function, further
analysis of the use of mobile devices should be done in conjunction with performing different
tasks. Studies should be done in relation to technologys effects in the modern world, specifically
the smartphone, which has reshaped our lives in the past few years. While technology paves the
way for improvement in knowledge and quality of life, misuse may point to results in the
opposite direction as intended.

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