Are ‘digital natives’ really effective multitaskers?

I thought the topic of multitasking might be useful to parents because at some stage in your child’s development you are going to hear the phrase, “You don’t understand, I am doing my homework. We (digital natives) can listen to music, chat, Facebook, watch Youtube, text and do homework all at the same time. Our brains are different to yours; we can multitask.”

‘Digital native’ is a term used to describe people born during or after the widespread introduction of digital technologies and who, through interacting with digital technology from an early age, have a greater understanding of its concepts.

The question is can our children really multitask?

Multitasking in this context refers to looking at various multi-media at the same time. This has become a part of everyone’s life that’s grown rapidly. For most of human history this has not been an issue, but today it is one that we need to think about. In the late 1990s the first research introduced us to a new state of mind, Continuous Partial Attention which refers to the desire to be a live node on a network and not miss anything going on in our social media world. Hence, the need to always be connected; being alive is being connected, paying continuous partial attention to anything else.

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This research has been built upon by many universities and from these studies we can see why multitasking has increased. Researchers believe that this is because of Partial Media Displacement. What this means is that as new technologies are created they take the place of the previous technology, for example radio has been replaced by TV. However, in the rapidly changing 21st century new technology emerges more quickly and what has happened is that instead of stealing time from old technology as in the past, new technology gets placed on top of existing, double or triple booking the same time space, leading to the need to multitask. Results show that heavy social media users have on average four sources open at any one time and spend up to 40 percent of what they define as work time following social media.

Terrible at Everything

Researchers from Duke University and The Kaiser Family Foundation have found that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks and are less able to sustain attention. Hence when adults are not supervising computer use, and children are left to their own devices, the impetus isn’t to do homework but to connect. The research from these leading sources clearly shows that students often juggle homework and entertainment but this does not come without consequences, as this 14-year-old student describes: “I’ll be reading a book for homework and I’ll get a text message and pause my reading and put down the book, pick up the phone to reply to the text message, and then 20 minutes later realize, ‘Oh, I forgot to do my homework.’”

Research from Stanford, MIT, Michigan and California State all produced shocking results that support the quote above. They discovered that multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping information in their head organized and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another. Evidence from psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience suggests that when students multitask while doing schoolwork, their learning is far spottier and shallower than if the work had their full attention. They understand and remember less, and they have greater difficulty transferring their learning to new contexts.

It’s clear from these studies that there are negative effects of divided attention on learning. Scientists show that the brain simply cannot do two complex tasks at the same time. It can do very simple tasks that don’t compete with each other for the same mental resources. However, doing homework while texting, emailing or posting on Facebook and other social media sites are a problem, because each of these tasks is very demanding, and each of them uses the same area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.

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There are four major issues arising from multitasking by students when doing their homework. Firstly, the assignment takes longer to complete because of the time spent on distracting activities. Secondly, the mental fatigue caused by repeatedly dropping and picking up a mental thread leads to more mistakes. Thirdly, students’ subsequent memory of what they’re working on is impaired if their attention is divided. Finally some research has suggested that when distracted, our brains actually process and store information in different, less useful ways, which can result in less flexible use of acquired knowledge.

Researchers are beginning to demonstrate that multitasking while learning is negatively associated with students’ grades. They found that students who could not resist the urge to use Facebook during their observation periods had lower grade point averages than those who didn’t go on the site.

So the answer to the question “Can students multitask?” is a categorical “no”!

However, it’s not all bad news. Researchers at the University of Washington believe we have the opportunity to take control of the situation. They suggest that we approach multitasking as a skill and teach the tools that will help students to focus, avoid distraction, and judge what they pay attention to as they’re exposed to distractions. They feel it’s a matter of training the brain. In recent studies involving introducing students to mindfulness, researchers found that those trained concentrated for longer periods of time, were more focused, and could ignore irrelevancies. The students felt they gained control and no longer felt that they had to deal with everything immediately. They had more time and could make skillful choices. Other studies that allowed students to build in tech breaks to periods of work, found that over time, students were able to extend their working time to 20, 30, even 45 minutes, as long as they knew that an opportunity to get online awaited in the future.

A piece of advice from one researcher is: “Parents can draw a line when it comes to homework and studying, telling their kids, ‘This is a time when you will concentrate on just one thing.’”

Adrian Watts is the Deputy Headmaster and Director of Academic Studies at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City (ISHCMC).

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Oi.