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The Perils of Multitasking

When kids are plugged in, how much sinks in?
 

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Attention and Focus

Brandon Satterwaite, a 7th grader in Plano, Texas, likes to study with all his equipment in place. While doing homework, he's also logged onto AOL Instant Messenger (IM) and Xanga, a social networking site akin to MySpace. He wears his earphones, since the rest of the family aren't exactly huge fans of the alternative rock bands he adores. When he takes a break, he's likely to switch screens to play World of Warcraft, his current game of choice. 

"I consider myself a pro at multitasking," says his mom, Jenn, "but Brandon blows me out of the water. He's a good kid, and he's doing well in school. But I don't know how he can remember anything with all that stuff going on."

Many parents are as flummoxed as Jenn. Growing up, we did homework quietly, save for a little background music. But that was so last century. Today, middle schoolers are downloading iTunes, "texting" friends on their cell phones, surfing the Web and checking their Web pages — all while reading a book for English or studying for a math test.

In fact, more kids are spending more time using more media simultaneously than ever before. In 2004, a study of 2,000 8- to 18-year-olds undertaken by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a research and policy think tank, documented what many parents have long known: 81 percent of Generation M (as the study dubbed them) are experts in "media multitasking," juggling various types of media for as much as 8 1/2 hours of "screen time" a day.

"That's what adults spend at a full-time job, with a little extra thrown in for overtime," says Victoria Rideout, M.A., who directed the report. In late 2006, her team further refined its conclusions: two-thirds of the time that kids are doing homework on the computer they are usually doing something else too. 

Brave New World?
There's nothing new about multitasking. Every mom knows that being able to prepare dinner, help a 5th grader with math homework, schedule an orthodontist appointment, and make sure a toddler isn't sticking bananas into the DVD player is part of the job. What's more, in order to excel at school and beyond, it's critical to be able to navigate the byways of our multimedia world. The question is: at what cost? While parents are dazzled by their kids' ability to move seamlessly from one technology to another, how much are they learning?

Not as not as much as they could be. "Distractions can inhibit a child from learning new facts or concepts," says Russell Poldrack, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at UCLA, who has been using brain-imaging techniques to study what happens when we try to learn more than one thing at a time. "Even if he learns something while multitasking, his ability to remember what he learns later or use it in other contexts will be diminished."

That's because the brain takes in information in different ways. Very simply, when you're learning new facts ("What is photosynthesis?"), you rely on declarative memory, which is stored in the hippocampus. Memories in the hippocampus are easier to recall in different situations. For instance, once you solve a geometry problem, you'll be able to apply that same principle to a slightly different problem in the next chapter.

However, when we're distracted, the brain bypasses the hippocampus and relies on the striatum, which is really designed for recalling how to do tasks you have done so often that they've become second-nature, such as which route you need to take to walk to school. Information stored in the striatum is tied closely to the specific situation in which it is learned. (We remember that geometry principle only if it's presented in exactly the same way on a test.) What's more, while it may seem as if we're doing many things simultaneously, the brain can really only focus on one thing at a time, unless the other skills involved are purely automatic.

"The brain is a lot like a computer," says William R. Stixrud, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist in Silver Spring, Maryland. "You may have several screens open on your desktop, but you're able to think about only one at a time." When a child is doing homework for two minutes, then answering instant-messages for another two, then shifting back to homework, and so on, the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (the brain's administrative assistant) must choreograph all those conflicting moves. The result: he works more slowly, less thoroughly. For those struggling with attention disorders, the problems may be magnified.

"Jumping back and forth to monitor different mediums is stressful," says Susan J. Schwartz, Ed.D., clinical director of the Institute for Learning and Academic Achievement at New York University's Child Study Center. "No one learns well under stress."

Still, as the world becomes increasingly digitized, there is evidence that children's brains may be adapting to multi-task more efficiently. "We don't know if that's good or bad," says Rideout, "but it's their reality. And anything that takes up that much time in our kids' lives demands our attention."

What to Do
Early adolescence is a period of rapid, sometimes overwhelming, emotional, physical and cognitive changes, and even the best students may be distracted and disorganized. But parents can make a real difference in the environment they create, as well as the kind and amount of media kids use. These strategies can help:

  • Enlist his ideas. "Developing self-discipline is critical to academic success and that has to come from them," says Stixrud. "My mantra is: you're the expert on you." Show that you respect your child's judgment by asking what kind of homework policy works best for him. Can't agree on a plan? Let him work his way for a week, your way the next. Another plan that works: Turn off all instant-messaging devices during a pre-established study time. Then, plan a 10-minute break, during which he can return IMs or get something to eat. After that he must return to homework. (Buy a kitchen timer so he knows when to log off.) "Kids want to do well," Stixrud says. "If you give them a voice, they're more likely to stick to the plan."
  • Reserve the right to change your mind. When Brandon's progress report showed that he'd failed to hand in several homework assignments, Jenn Satterwaite put new limits in place. Now, Brandon is allowed one hour of screen time a day, after homework, chores, and a shower. Other parents institute a no-media-on-school-night policy. "If they know they can log on when work is done, they may rush through it," says Schwartz.
  • Create a study-friendly space. If your child's room resembles a media arcade, redecorate. Put the computer in the family room or an open area. If that's not possible, declare an open-door policy for the bedroom or disable Internet access during homework time.
  • Find out why he's multi-tasking. Sometimes multitasking can enhance learning. "Let's say you're studying for a science test," Schwartz hypothesizes. "If you take a break to email your study buddy about photosynthesis, multitasking is serving learning. But if you IM her about American Idol, you're breaking the focus you need to learn." Similarly, for some, music functions like white noise, drowning out distractions or easing anxiety. "Middlers are passionately involved with friends, and they may feel less alone knowing a friend is online, even if they can't IM until the work is finished," she adds.
  • Log off. Technology is not the culprit — it's all the things you miss out on when you're plugged in. "Kids need mental breathing time to relax and recharge," says Schwartz. So unplug yourself and spend some time just being together.

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