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But My Kid is a Multitasker

May 5, 2009

by Todd Kettler, CISD Director of Advanced Academics

It’s the 21st century. Multitasking is a badge of honor, the universal brand of the busy. Multitasking is so widespread, it’s even the platform on which Windows operates your desktop, hence your task bar. What postmodern lightweight only has one application at a time on the task bar? Who can’t listen to an ipod, instant message a group of friends, update Facebook, and still learn chemistry from a textbook?

I’m sure we are familiar with the multitasking of our children. They say they are studying though the conglomerate of digital evidence surrounding them may indicate otherwise. You may be surprised to learn that current research on multitasking suggests that it slows children’s productivity, changes the way they learn, and may even render social relationships more superficial. David Meyer, director of the Brain, Cognition, and Action Lab at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor says that increased efficiency is an illusion of multitasking. People who multitask actually take longer to get things done. In a research study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance (2001), Meyer and his colleagues found that mental energy is used each time a person switches from task to task, and the amount of time lost increases significantly when the tasks increase in complexity. Thus, the act of switching delays completion of all tasks involved in multitasking.

Russell Poldrack, a neuroscience professor at the University of California at Los Angeles published a study in 2006 in which he and his colleagues studied participants’ performance during tasks which were either done solo or as part of a multitasking process. They found that although participants in both groups learned the sorting tasks, the multitaskers learned to perform the tasks in a different way. They relied on procedural memory rather than the more flexible declarative memory. As a consequence, they could not answer questions asking them to apply the same tasks to new situations whereas the solo task learners could. This suggest that multitasking has an impact not only on the efficiency of learning, but also on the quality.

The multitasking that comes with digital media and digital communication may have an impact on how young people develop friendships. Mizuko Ito of the University of California at Irvine found that digital media played an important role in the social development of the 800 young people she and her team studied. The young people they studied made friends with and hung out with people who were not from the same geographical region. Though such networking may sound harmless on the surface, Ito suggests it impairs the development of deep friendships with people whom the kids actually rather than virtually hang out. Developmental psychologist Patricia Greenfield suggests that multitasking has similar effects on friendship as it does on learning. Kids may be more able to manage a large network of friends, but they are less successful at developing deep friendships with a small group.

Before you categorically accept multitasking as a way of 21st century life, consider that just because our current tools make it the mode of operation for the day, doesn’t mean that it is better than more traditional ways of studying, learning, and making friends.

Note: This article is a summary of a larger piece that appears in the Monitor on Psychology, February 2009.

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