Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be…Multitaskers

December 19th, 2012

By Dr. Jim Taylor

children_multitaskingLike 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 Web, 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.

Single Tasking for Kids 3.0

Hopefully, you’re now convinced that so-called multitasking isn’t what it purports to be and definitely doesn’t do your children any favors. So, the next thing to do is to show them (and perhaps yourself) how to “single task.” The solution is definitely not rocket science; it simply requires your children to make deliberate choices about what they wish to focus on and maintaining that singular focus until the task is completed. The bad news is that it can be difficult for children to break multitasking habits that may have already become ingrained. The good news is that, with some commitment and discipline on your part and theirs, your children can retrain those habits and, in a relatively short time and with the benefits clear, become comfortable and adept single taskers.

Single tasking starts with looking for ways to maximize your children’s ability to focus and minimize their potential distractions. Given that single tasking may involve some pretty significant changes in your children’s use of technology, I would encourage that you collaborate with them so they see the value in whatever changes you want them to implement.

Let’s use your children’s homework as the setting to help them shift from multitasking to single tasking. First, if they’re like most children, they probably do their homework in the living room or family room at your house. This means that there is a lot of distracting activity going on around them, such as you doing chores or their siblings coming and going. So, the first step is to find them a quiet space in which they won’t be interrupted. Your first thought might be their bedroom, but that probably offers your children even more distractions when they get tired, bored, or stuck. A den or study, if available, is a better option.

Second, help them to get comfortable and organized. They should ideally sit in a chair that’s comfortable, but too comfortable. Sofas and beds are just asking for daydreaming or napping. Their workspace should allow them easy access to whatever they need for their homework and be uncluttered with irrelevant stuff (clutter equals distraction).

Third, and most importantly, have them put away distracting technology. This means no mobile phones (the pings and buzzes from incoming messages are an immense distraction), no social media (if your children can’t do it themselves, there’s software that can give you control), no television (old school, but still a huge distraction), and only instrumental music (as noted earlier). You don’t want these changes to seem harsh to your children (and they will be if they’re accustomed to multitasking), so it’s best to begin these changes with a discussion and try to get buy-in from them. Also, allow them breaks in which they can, for example, check their text messages, update their Facebook page, or call a friend.

My experience has been that children often offer initial resistance to this shift from distracted multitasking to focused single tasking, particularly if they’re used to the former. If you can at least convince them to try it out for, say, two weeks, and perhaps even offer them incentives (research shows that bribery to initiate behavior change is effective), then you create the time to retrain their habits, allow them to become comfortable with the changes, and, most importantly, see its benefits. Your children will find that single tasking is effective, that is, they’re able to focus better, learn more, and do better in school. They’ll also find it more efficient, meaning they get more done in less time, which gives them more time to do things that they want, such as use the technology that was missing while they were single tasking.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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