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Teens Can Multitask, But What Are Costs?

Megan Casady, 17, sends instant messages, watches TV and listens to music while doing biology homework.
Megan Casady, 17, sends instant messages, watches TV and listens to music while doing biology homework. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

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By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 26, 2007

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."

Megan's parents, Steven and Donna Casady, might have their worries about the iPod/IM/text messaging/MTV effect on Megan's ability to retain the definition of "biochemical similarity," but they say it's hard to argue with a teenager who boasts a 3.85 unweighted grade-point average.

"To me, it's nothing but chaos," Steven Casady said. "But these kids? It seems to work for them. It seems to work for [Megan]. But it's hard for me to be in the same room when this is going on."

Thanks to the Internet, students say, facts are at their fingertips. If they get stuck on a math problem, they say, help is only an IM away.

"I honestly feel like I'm able to accomplish more during an hour if I multitask," said Christine Stoddard, 18, a senior at Yorktown High School in Arlington County. "If it's something like English or history that comes easily to me, then I can easily divide my attention. It's the way I've always been."

In fact, Christine sheepishly confessed that she was filling out a college scholarship application while being interviewed for this story.


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