Does Multi-tasking Interfere with School Success?

“What did you say? I was just texting my friend. Oops, sorry, that’s my phone. It must be my mother to see if I got here okay. So, which book did you want me to take out of my backpack?”

Jen, a fifteen-year old, was listening to music, too. As she got settled. I asked Jen if this kind of multi-tasking goes on all day. She confirmed my suspicions that multi-tasking goes on while she does her homework, including all the social interactions on her computer.

I’d bet your teens are doing this kind of multi-tasking too.

Life on this “fast track” doesn’t leave Jen or your kids enough brain cells for homework. It’s not that kids aren’t doing their homework. They are. It’s not that they don’t care. They do. But they’re doing everything at once: e-mailing, texting, phoning, watching YouTube, chatting on MySpace or FaceBook . . . and their homework. Surely multi-tasking has a down side.

Discoveries about Multi-tasking

The latest research on multi-tasking shows that performance suffers when people do more than one thing at a time. In fact, when people go from one task to another very quickly, they’re slowed down. Little research has been done on multi-tasking and the teen brain, but we can probably infer from research done on adults.

Scientists have learned that no matter how great you are at multi-tasking, you will accomplish the individual tasks less skillfully if you’re multi-tasking than if you concentrate from start to finish on the same task. In other words, when we try to do many things at once, performance suffers.

David Meyer at the University of Michigan has spent the past few decades studying multi-tasking. He found that multi-tasking causes a kind of “brownout” in the brain. Meyer uses an analogy comparing the brain to what happens when the electric company reduces the voltage during peak summer consumption hours and all the lights go dim.

Similarly, because there just isn’t enough “power to go around,” the brain automatically shuts down some of the connections. In order to restore those connections, people have to repeat the thought process that originally created the connections which takes additional time and effort.

As an aside, many teens insist that they study more efficiently if they listen to music while doing schoolwork. They may be right. Having music playing in the background may actually improve their performance. Because they aren’t concentrating on the music, they aren’t really multi-tasking. So, if the music keeps them from getting bored, or distracted from their studies, it improves their efficiency. This is often true for ADHD kids.

Talk to Your Teens

Hopefully, the examples I’ve used will help you drive home the message to your teenager that multi-tasking impacts negatively on his performance of individual tasks. Consider using the example of driving while texting. Even the best multi-tasker would require additional time to react to a sudden emergency. That fraction of a second could easily avoid a serious accident. Someone your teen loves could be injured or die in this catastrophe. It’s exactly the reason many states have passed laws against driving while talking on a cell phone.

Let us know what you think about multi-tasking. Is it affecting your kids negatively? Do you do it too?

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