You feel like a broken record. How many times have you mentioned/suggested/demanded that your child stop texting, checking the Twitter feed, or watching the latest viral sensation on YouTube while doing homework? Your tween or teen assures you that they are capable of extraordinary multitasking powers; in fact, he or she says that all this social media stuff actually helps them stay focused by giving them little frequent breaks.
Your gut says, “Baloney!” Yet, no matter how much you harp on this issue, your child stonewalls and you are left “talking to the hand” while he or she is up until 11:00pm finishing the day’s homework. And the cycle continues, even as you prod your child’s groggy body out of bed the next day.
Well, knowing that most teens are wired to dismiss and even actively oppose a parent’s advice, maybe another tactic is called for if you are trying to convince your child to stop multitasking when doing homework. Sometimes the cool, objective voice of science can be more effective than an exasperated, red-faced shout of “Turn that phone off now!” We reviewed some research on the subject of multitasking to arm you with some compelling evidence to share with your child (read more details in Annie Murphy Paul’s Slate.com article).
Multitasking Drains Your Brain
Dr. Larry Rosen, a researcher and psychology professor emeritus of California State University, explains that adolescents use technology to make sure they are on top of information that their peers are tuned into. For them, being the last to chime in on a comment thread or to react to an Instagram post feels downright unsettling, so they check their social media frequently to control their fear of missing out. Rosen cautions that the problem with these distractions is that they place demands on the brain’s language processing skills, which are needed firing on all cylinders for academic tasks. When students have overloaded language processing channels, their learning can be compromised. This weaker processing capacity short-circuits deeper understanding of material. It’s the difference between skimming through a Shakespearean sonnet (“I think it’s something about love...or flowers?”) and fully examining the theme, structure, rich vocabulary, and use of metaphor to gain an ehnanced grasp of the author’s work.
Ultimately, Rosen concludes, if we want students to learn and perform effectively, smartphones and other online distractions must be managed.
Multitasking Sabotages Learning
Without full, sustained attention during learning, students do not retain information effectively. In other words, we can’t store into memory what we never learn in the first place. Imagine what it’s like to recreate a drawing from a blurry, faded photograph of the original. If a student’s attention is divided when learning something new, he has a blurry, imprecise memory of the new information.
Annie Murphy Paul explains, “The moment of encoding information is what matters most for retention, and dozens of laboratory studies have demonstrated that when our attention is divided during encoding, we remember that piece of information less well—or not at all."
Compounding matters, if homework is done while multitasking in an introductory class, it will be more difficult to build on that shaky foundation of learning in the more advanced class the next semester.
Multitasking Lowers Your GPA
In a study of 8-18 year old students done by the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly one third of the students surveyed confessed that when they were doing homework, they were also watching TV, texting, or listening to music. This study found a relationship between how much time students spent on social media and their grades.
“Children who are heavy media users are more likely to report getting fair or poor grades (mostly C’s or lower) than other children. Indeed, nearly half (47%) of all heavy media users say they usually get fair or poor grades, compared to 23% of light media users.” Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8-18-Year-Olds
What Parents Can Do to Help Students Minimize Distractions
Sometimes a hands-on demonstration is more powerful than all the advice we can share with a student. Here’s a fun, 5 minute test that you can do along with your kids to demonstrate how multitasking impacts performance. (While the target audience for this video is professionals, it uses a very simple task that middle school and high school-aged students can do easily. Preview it first; if you feel your child would be turned off by the commercial nature of the video, here’s a link to a PDF with instructions for the same activity.) Dave Crenshaw, the presenter, does a nice, concise job of discussing 3 costs of multi-tasking: work takes longer, work quality decreases, and stress increases.
Be a model for your child as part of the Multitasking Elimination Task Force. Show how you manage and limit distractions, and what you gain by doing so. “I decided to not check my email while I finished that report for work, and I was done by noon!”
Encourage technology breaks. Plan undistracted work intervals interspersed with short breaks devoted to media use. Thirty minutes of focused work will yield much better results than an hour of switching between social media, texting, and homework.
Finally, if you think your child might need a kid-centered argument for managing technology distractions, we’ve created a downloadable guide entitled “Learn the Secret to Cutting Your Homework Time in Half!”.