Your brain on multitasking

brain on multitaskingTake a look at your teenagers at any given time. Chances are, you’ll find them tapping or scrolling on their cell phone, half-watching TV, and giving you one-word answers to your questions about school. Teens pride themselves on their multitasking capabilities, but they shouldn’t, because as it turns out, multitasking rarely produces quality.

A new study coming out of Stanford University confirms what most of us already suspected: Multitasking may allow kids to keep a lot of balls in the air, but none of them will spin gracefully. Even scarier, “… people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information cannot pay attention, recall information, or switch from one job to another as well as those who complete one task at a time.” So multitasking doesn’t just produce shoddy work, it also negatively affects kids long-term.

We teachers see this all the time. With each passing year, kids are less able to focus for any length of time. After clear directions are given, it’s not uncommon for three hands to shoot up, all three kids asking for directions. Left alone to their own devices – to write a paper, for instance – they frequently check their phones, seek out social interaction, surf the web, or ask to use the restroom. Anything to prevent focus on the subject at hand. Since students haven’t learned to give their full attention to one task at a time, they don’t know what to do when distractions are eliminated, so they often create their own distractions. They plug into music, tap through apps, or talk to the person next to them. They can’t handle quiet, and they have a hard time being alone with their thoughts.

Parents can help their kids by eliminating distractions and setting rules about cell phone and computer use. For instance, dinner is for dining and conversation, not for cell phones. We look at each other when we talk, always, not at our cell phones. When we study, the cell phone is turned off or in another room, where its incessant beeping and vibrating can’t entice us to leave the task at hand.

And here’s an idea – how about insisting that kids turn off their phones at 10:00 pm? Why? Because the vast majority of teens stay up late and sleep intermittently because their phones are on, lighting up with texts and sounding off with Instagram notifications. The next day, they are listless and even more unfocused. You know how you feel after a poor night’s sleep. Imagine a teenager who is already easily distracted further hindered by lack of sleep.

When you see your kids doing three things at once, stop them. Teach them to focus their energies on one task at a time, to be in the moment and to give it the attention it deserves. They won’t just see an improvement in their grades, they’ll learn to take life in, one moment at a time.

5 thoughts on “Your brain on multitasking

  1. Sadly, with no alternative I can think of (yet) I’ve had to place all digital devices in a locked room overnight …. House rules, mobiles get placed on charge as soon as home from school. Laptops/homework finishes at 6:30pm, then dinner. It’s an ugly necessity with 3 teens and 1 8yo!!


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