Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be... Multitaskers

Like many digital natives, your children are probably on their way to becoming lifelong multitaskers (or so you think). There's only one problem with this scenario: there is no such thing as multitasking -- at least not in the way you may think of it.
01/02/2013 07:39pm ET | Updated March 4, 2013
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Like many digital natives, your children are probably on their way to becoming lifelong multitaskers (or so you think). As the research indicates, children these days spend about seven-and-a-half hours a day interacting with technology unrelated to school and when multitasking is counted, that number jumps to an astonishing ten-and-three-quarter hours. Your children may be doing their homework, checking their text messages, surfing the Internet and listening to music, all at the same time (or so they think). Why do they multitask? The short answer is because they can and it's what just about every young person does these days.

There's only one problem with this scenario: there is no such thing as multitasking -- at least not in the way you may think of it. The fact is that multitasking, as most people understand it, is a myth that has been promulgated by the "technological-industrial complex" to make everyone feel more competent, efficient, productive and, well, cool.

Real multitasking involves engaging in two tasks simultaneously. Here's the catch, though: It's only possible if two conditions are met: 1) at least one of the tasks is so well-learned as to be automatic, meaning no focus or thought is necessary to engage in the task (e.g., walking or eating) and 2) they involve different types of brain processing. For example, children can study effectively while listening to classical music because reading comprehension and processing instrumental music engage different parts of the brain. However, the ability to retain information while reading and listening to music with lyrics declines significantly because both tasks activate the language center of the brain.

Your children are actually "task switching." Rather than engaging in several tasks simultaneously, they are, in fact, shifting from one task to another to another in sequence. For example, they switch from their phone conversation to their homework assignment to a text message to a newly opened hyperlink on their computer screen and back again in the belief that they're doing them simultaneously. But they're not!

Research has uncovered two findings that are at odds with the conventional wisdom about so-called multitasking. A summary of studies examining multitasking describes how so-called multitasking is neither effective nor efficient. These findings have demonstrated that when your children shift focus from one task to another, that transition is neither fast nor smooth. Instead, there is a lag time during which the brain must yank itself from the initial task and then glom onto the new task. This shift, though it feels instantaneous, takes time. In fact, up to 40 percent more time than single-tasking -- especially for complex tasks.

A 2010 study offers perhaps the most surprising result: those who consider themselves to be great multitaskers are in fact the worst multitaskers. Those who rated themselves as chronic multitaskers made more mistakes, could remember fewer items and took longer to complete a variety of focusing tasks analogous to multitasking than those self-rated as infrequent multitaskers. Other research has found that children perform worse on their homework if it is done while watching TV.

Another study reported that when students are working on their computers and have the television on, the level of distraction is startling. This research tracked eye movements and found that, during a half-hour period, students switched their attention between their computer and television 120 times. Amazingly, the participants in the study weren't aware of how distracted they were, guessing that they looked back and forth only about 15 times in 30 minutes. Even more astonishing, the median length of time that they looked at television and their computer was two and six seconds, respectively. Given this level of distraction, you wonder how children ever learn or get anything done while studying.

Still another study found that a sample of middle school, high school and university students lost focus every three minutes during a 15-minute study period on their computers. Not surprisingly, these distractions were directly related to the number of windows (e.g., Facebook, Instant Messaging, web pages) that students had open on their computers. Further analyses revealed that children's ability to stay "on task" was highly predictive of their good grades. Additionally, the best predictors of poor grades were a tendency to multitask (i.e., switch frequently from task to task), the total number of hours each day children spent with technology and whether they checked their Facebook pages at least once every 15 minutes. How widespread is this phenomenon? A survey found that 73 percent of young people can't study without some form of technology and 38% can't last ten minutes without checking their technology.

Understanding Multitasking

What does this mean for your children who are growing up in a world in which so-called multitasking is not only the norm, but also considered essential for success (and social acceptance)? Well, it means that your children don't really multitask. Despite appearances, your simply can't talk on the phone, read text messages and watch YouTube videos all at the same time. In fact, when your children think they're cruising along the information highway, the research I just described shows that they're actually stepping on the gas then hitting the brakes, over and over again.

Consider how children used to do homework. They would have an assignment they needed to complete, so they would stop what they were doing, for example, watching television or playing with friends, sit at the desk in their room or at the dining room table, and focus on their homework. The most distraction children would experience might be from the home phone ringing or someone entering the room. The very primitiveness and infrequency of these distractions enabled children to stay focused on their homework for extended periods and get it done quickly and well. The result? Children were generally productive and successful.

Now, let's fast forward a generation to the present and children's ability to immerse themselves in a single activity is becoming a dying art. New technology in the form of mobile phones, email, texting and, more specifically, Facebook, Twitter and other social media, keeps children in a constant state of distraction. The result is less attention paid to their homework, more time needed for completion and, in all likelihood, your children not doing their assignment as well as they could have and receiving a lower grade for their distracted effort.