Can social media breaks make you more productive?

April 4, 2019

This coming football season, the Arizona Cardinals will take social media breaks every 20 minutes during meetings. While Head Coach Kliff Kingsbury’s decision might seem counterproductive — at least according to the reaction of sports commentators — scientists who study attention laud it as a step in the right direction.

Arizona State University’s Matt Robison, a postdoctoral scholar in the Memory and Attention Control Lab is an expert on sustained attention. Matt Robison Arizona State University’s Matt Robison, a postdoctoral scholar in the Memory and Attention Control Lab is an expert on sustained attention. Photo by Robert Ewing, ASU Department of Psychology Download Full Image

“Whenever you ask someone to do a task for a long period of time, their performance tends to suffer the longer that they spend on that task,” Robison said. “Meetings are a perfect example.”

The prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain behind the forehead — is thought to be responsible for the ability to focus and pay attention. But, a tiny brain area called the locus coeruleus, or LC for short, works with the prefrontal cortex and plays an important role in how people pay attention. The LC is located deep in the brainstem and is only about a centimeter in size. Neurons in the LC release norepinephrine throughout the entire brain, which contributes to how alert and attentive people are.

Robison wants to know how the LC contributes to sustained attention. He is testing how the LC might interact with brain areas and networks of brain areas involved in attention. To do this, Robison uses electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the brain’s electrical activity from regions like the prefrontal cortex. He tracks where people look and the size of their pupil as an indirect way to track what the LC is doing when people pay attention or become distracted.

When people participate in a task that requires a high level of attention, Robison finds the EEG and pupil size signals degrade as time passes, which suggest the LC might not be connecting well with the prefrontal cortex and other brain attention networks. When Robison sets up experiments designed to create mental fatigue, people report feeling less alert and less motivated to keep paying attention. But when people can take breaks, Robison finds their performance on the task recovers quickly, and so do the EEG and pupil size signals.

“There are published studies suggesting that breaks are a good strategy to maintain attention,” said Robison. “Coach Kingsbury might be on to something.”

Robison does not think the implementation of social media breaks suggests problems with attention for a specific generation. He said the availability of distractions has increased though. Social media usage has never been higher, with over 79% of Americans actively using social media for over 3 hours a day on average.

“The attention systems of each generation are largely the same, and so are the attentional abilities,” Robison said. “This generation growing up today has much more at their disposal to distract them, like cell-phones, television and the internet. All these things are now available at the drop of a hat.”

Sustained attention was as much of a problem when Kurt Warner was quarterback as it is today.

“If we can design our education and work spaces while recognizing that sustained attention is difficult for everyone, we can optimize our learning and productivity just by designing around our natural limitations,” Robison said. 

Robert Ewing

Marketing and Communications Manager, Department of Psychology


ASU’s digital high school: Premier learning solutions for today’s global students

April 4, 2019

Hannah Stewart, 15, and her family have called many places home: Nevada, California, Arizona, Texas and Hawaii, just to name a few.

Four years ago, job opportunities for her parents took them to China, first Macau and now Hong Kong. Despite the international move, Stewart has been able to stay on track with her education through Arizona State University’s online college prep option, ASU Prep Digital. ASU Prep Digital Student Hannah Stewart ASU Prep Digital student Hannah Stewart. Photo courtesy of Hannah Stewart. Download Full Image

ASU Prep Digital offers high school and university courses via a rigorous virtual school program that prepares students for college acceptance and enables them to start earning credit toward college majors and careers in an increasingly interconnected environment. The program is part of ASU Preparatory Academy, an innovative PreK-12 school started by ASU that serves more than 2,300 students at five campuses throughout Arizona.

“ASU is a premier educational enterprise that meets learners where they are on their path,” said Amy McGrath, COO for ASU Prep Digital and associate VP for ASU’s Educational Outreach and Student Services. “Our digital high school, ASU Prep Digital, is an example of a flexible, personalized and engaging learning environment that brings next generation adaptive learning opportunities to students all over the world.”

For Stewart, ASU Prep Digital has enabled her to not only continue her education while living with her family abroad — it’s helped her accelerate it.

“It’s really helpful because it’s allowed me to get ahead,” Stewart said. “In a traditional school setting you have to stick with the pace that they set. With ASU Prep Digital, you can move at your own pace and that allows me to not only finish high school early, but also get meaningful college credit that counts toward my major.”

After moving abroad, Stewart attended an international school and a private school, but neither was the right fit for her. She also tried homeschooling using resources found online, but determined that she needed something more engaging, cohesive and tangible.

ASU Prep Digital turned out to be the perfect solution, with its personalized curriculum and flexible structure. Stewart appreciates being able to work independently, from wherever she happens to be.

“I can be flexible with my time, like when I’m traveling, I don’t have to be constantly pulled in and out of school. I can work whenever I want to and not worry about coming in at a certain time.”

Stewart found going to school in a traditional, in-person setting overwhelming at times, so she likes being able to connect with her classmates more intentionally through the digital platform. She notes, however, that even though ASU Prep Digital is online, it’s not a solitary experience.

“We have tons of club options and you go to live lessons with your teachers and everything, but also it allows you to explore a social setting outside of your school,” Stewart said.

She serves as president of the Photography Yearbook Club, which meets weekly through Zoom video chats to share their work and collaborate.

Helping students feel connected and supported in their educational experience, regardless of their location, is a high priority, according to McGrath.

“ASU Prep Digital courses offer students the opportunity to meet and collaborate with students around the world during video live lessons, and during collaborative discussion opportunities within the platform,” McGrath said. “Students partner with one another to solve real world problems as part of their learning journey. Learning Success Coaches keep students connected to their goals and ensure every student feels encouraged and empowered.” 

Stewart plans to attend college back in the U.S. and major in biomedical engineering. She hopes to attend medical school and ultimately work with Doctors Without Borders as a psychiatrist, and she is getting a serious head start on her future with Prep Digital.

Though she has traveled throughout her life, Stewart’s interest in traveling and working internationally was expanded through her experience with ASU Prep Digital.

“I realized you can connect with people from other countries without being in that country. I was like, ‘Wow, I could be associated with a U.S. affiliate and still have other opportunities, like seeing my family, while continuing to travel and help people in other countries, which is really cool.' ASU Prep digital helped me realize that things are more interconnected than I thought."

Copy writer and editor, Educational Outreach and Student Services