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May 15, 2013

Driven to distraction


By Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor

My kids claim they can multitask. No problem, they say, they can successfully do their homework while listening to music, replying to texts, eating a snack, checking Instagram, cuddling the cat, and squabbling with a sibling.

But a recent article by Annie Murphy Paul on Slate indicates that they’re probably getting less homework done — and doing it a lot more sloppily — than they think.

Murphy Paul cites research by Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, that measured how much multitasking students engage in, including texting, talking on the phone, watching TV, surfing the web, going on Facebook, and instant messaging.

For the study, the student-subjects, who were in middle school, high school and college, were instructed to engage in serious work, and knew they were being observed. Rosen was surprised by his findings. “We were amazed at how frequently [students] multitasked, even though they knew someone was watching,” Rosen says. “It really seems that they could not go for 15 minutes without engaging their devices.” He confesses: “It was kind of scary, actually.”

Cultural ADD

Kids from grade school through college are engaging in a staggering amount of technology-fueled multitasking, according to researchers like Rosen. One-third of kids from ages 8 through 18 said they engaged in other activities — like watching TV, listening to music, and texting — while they did their homework, according to a 2010 Kaiser report. In another study, 80 percent of college students surveyed said they texted during class time. Meanwhile, there is a growing body of evidence that kids who multitask while doing school work understand less, remember less, and have trouble transferring what they learn to a new context.  Of course, kids aren't the only multitaskers — plenty of adults are just as distracted at work and at home.  

Besides diminishing our effectiveness in school and on the job, what is this relentless storm of personal messages, random facts, frenetic stimulation, and constant interruption doing to our brains — and to our culture as a whole?  Nicolas Carr, author of The Shallows, suggests it's causing fundamental changes we're just beginning to understand. Writing in Harper's Magazine, teacher Garret Keizer cites the eye-popping rise in rates of  Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and points out: “Hearing someone say, ‘I’ve got ADD’ in a culture of such vast distractedness is a bit like having a fellow passenger on an ocean liner tell you that she feels afloat. Who doesn’t?”

Don’t eat that marshmallow!

Since technology is here to stay, kids need to learn to live with distractions – and, more importantly, to live without them when they have serious, sustained work to do. The ability to resist the lure of technological distractions  in school and on the job is likely to play an increasingly important role in determining an individual’s success. Murphy Paul draws a parallel with the famous marshmallow test. In that experiment, children were shown a marshmallow and told that if they put off eating it, they’d get a second marshmallow.  Researchers found that the children who were able to wait and not immediately gobble up their treat were more successful at school, and years later, on the job and in relationships.

So what can you do build up your kids’ marshmallow muscles when technology beckons? Here’s Murphy Paul’s advice: “Stop fretting about how much they’re on Facebook. Don’t harass them about how much they play video games. The digital native boosters are right that this is the social and emotional world in which young people live. Just make sure when they’re doing schoolwork, the cell phones are silent, the video screens are dark, and that every last window is closed but one.”


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