Is media multitasking melting our brains?

May 22, 2013
Kids today are master multitaskers. You’ve probably heard about this phenomenon or observed it in your students or the children in your life (or with yourself!). The Kaiser Family Foundation uses the term “media multitasking” to describe children and teens spending increasing amounts of time interacting with multiple media simultaneously. But is all this multitasking helping them become more efficient, productive learners? Research seems to indicate that the answer is “no.” A widely-cited new study from California State University that looked at students’ ability to stay focused on work (homework, or a school project, or reading, etc.) showed that students studied less than six minutes before getting distracted by technology, and only spent 65 percent of the first 15 minutes focusing on the important task at hand. And when students multitask while doing their homework, “their learning is far spottier and shallower than if the work had their full attention,” writes Annie Murphy Paul. “So detrimental is this practice that some researchers are proposing that a new prerequisite for academic and even professional success—the new marshmallow test of self-discipline—is the ability to resist a blinking inbox or a buzzing phone.” In a great post on his must-read blog, cognitive scientist Dan Willingham says the ability to sustain attention may be the 21st Century skill “in shortest supply.” He writes: “If we are concerned that students today are too quick to allow their attention to be yanked to the brightest object (or to willfully redirect it once their very low threshold of boredom is surpassed), we need to consider ways that we can bring home to them the potential reward of sustained attention.” Clearly, the ability to focus and see complicated tasks through to the end is a skill that pays off in the workplace and in life. So how do we help students (and in many cases help ourselves!) learn how to sustain attention and see the value of sticking with tasks for a long period of time? Dan Willingham has some ideas. But please share yours as well! Or is this whole thing just overblown? Maybe it’s just our brains reacting and adjusting to new stimuli… (Flickr photo by sand_sand_sky)