Executive functions underlie complex task performance and thinking. Further, the quality of your executive functions predicts online risky behaviors. Executive functions are central to college success, but long-term computer technology usage might negatively impact those functions.
The Executive Functions
You might not have heard of the “executive functions” but they are key to your personal success in life and in work. They tap into fundamental mental activities such as planning, focused attention, ignoring irrelevant information, and memory storage. Basic processes like these play a role in “higher-order” functions like decision-making, reasoning, complex task performance, and multitasking. How could you survive at work or home without these?!
Scary but scientifically interesting things happen when persons have problems with their executive functions. Since it is well established that these functions rely on one particular part of the brain for operation—the frontal lobes—observations of persons with changes to their frontal lobes show the impact of executive function (EF) problems. For example, Daria Knoch at the University of Zürich and colleagues found that using electrical stimulation to temporarily disable part of the frontal lobes caused people to become more selfish. In another example, Kai Yuan at Xidian University (China) with Yijun Liu at the University of Florida and Jie Tian (Xidian University) along with colleagues discovered that adolescents with Internet Addiction Disorder have brain structure abnormalities in areas in and near the frontal lobes.
We found that problems with one’s executive functions were a consistent predictor of poor behavior online
In the past couple of years, our laboratory has been using a measure of executive function in most of our research on the psychology of technology. Some of those studies that our laboratory published in the “The Handbook of Psychology, Technology, and Society” show the clear link between these executive functions and online behavior. The studies were done with persons from the early teens to the late 20s in the Los Angeles area. We found that problems with one’s executive functions were a consistent predictor of poor behavior online, as can be seen in the table below. The behaviors that we studied were disclosing personal information, interacting with strangers, ignoring privacy concerns, and responding to potentially dangerous personal messages.
Kids and Executive Function
College will be the biggest challenge for children’s executive functions
At home and in school, not just online, executive functions are key to achievement. I remember when my son starting getting “projects” assigned in fifth grade. These were assignments that would last several weeks and required carrying out sets of actions in concrete steps with specific due dates. The projects usually culminated in a final paper or presentation that showed off the accumulation of knowledge and skills during the project period. As much as I loved helping my son with these projects, he, well, dreaded them, frankly. At that age, he could not break down a complex task into parts with each part having a specific set of actions associated with it. Also, creating a plan and sticking to it also was very difficult, even using the paper planner that the school had given him. Other tasks that kids must perform that place demands on executive function are multitasking, avoiding distraction while studying, and sticking to a homework schedule.
College will be the biggest challenge for children’s executive functions. Having good planning skills, excellent multitasking skills, and being able to focus for long periods of time are components of high-level college performance. It takes a long time to hone these skills—the frontal lobes are the last part of the brain to mature and they don’t finish developing until the late 20s.
Technology Use and EF Problems
It’s clear from the research that having existing problems with executive functions can create disturbances in high-level processing, and, in the case of technology use, possibly impact risky online behavior and proneness to Internet addiction. At the same time, some researchers have raised the possibility that using personal computer technology can lead to impairments in EF.
In a recent review of the scientific literature on the topic, Kep Kee Loh at the Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (France) and Ryota Kanai at the University of Sussex identified a number of things that might be happening to people as they use more and more personal computer technology. Organizing these effects into three broad areas, the researchers suggested that the Internet environment, through the activities that it facilitates, can cause changes in behavior and in psychology structures. The table below shows some examples of these effects.
The quality of your executive functions could be influencing your work and life successes while your technology usage could be influencing the executive functions themselves.
(Photo by Mark Bonica, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0))