Taking Task with Multitasking

As you’re sitting in front of your computer reading these words, are you engaged in other activities or receiving stimuli from other sources? Are you watching television? Listening to music? Chatting on the telephone? Instant Messaging with a friend? Can you imagine doing all these things at once and still being able to devote due attention to these words? For the current generation of young people who have never known a time when information technologies were not omnipresent, such multitasking is all too often part of their daily existence. But what are the implications and consequences of this behavior? Is it healthy, particularly for those whose brains are still developing? In today’s Washington Post, Lori Aratani explores these very questions:

Teens Can Multitask, But What Are Costs?

It’s homework time and 17-year-old Megan Casady of Silver Spring is ready to study.

She heads down to the basement, turns on MTV and boots up her computer. Over the next half hour, Megan will send about a dozen instant messages discussing the potential for a midweek snow day. She’ll take at least one cellphone call, fire off a couple of text messages, scan Weather.com, volunteer to help with a campus cleanup day at James Hubert Blake High School where she is a senior, post some comments on a friend’s Facebook page and check out the new pom squad pictures another friend has posted on hers.

In between, she’ll define “descent with modification” and explain how “the tree analogy represents the evolutionary relationship of creatures” on a worksheet for her AP biology class.

Call it multitasking homework, Generation ‘Net style.

The students who do it say multitasking makes them feel more productive and less stressed. Researchers aren’t sure what the long-term impact will be because no studies have probed its effect on teenage development. But some fear that the penchant for flitting from task to task could have serious consequences on young people’s ability to focus and develop analytical skills.

There is special concern for teenagers because parts of their brain are still developing, said Jordan Grafman, chief of cognitive neuroscience at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

“Introducing multitasking in younger kids in my opinion can be detrimental,” he said. “One of the biggest problems about multitasking is that it’s almost impossible to gain a depth of knowledge of any of the tasks you do while you’re multitasking. And if it becomes normal to do, you’ll likely be satisfied with very surface-level investigation and knowledge.” [full text]