Parental advocacy group Common Sense Media came out with a new study Tuesday that looks at how parents and their children view their own media habits — and whether they feel as if they’re “addicted” to their screens.
But it also takes aim at another common modern behavior: multitasking.
Chances are that we all multitask. (Case in point: In the course of writing this post, I have taken four calls for three stories, sent seven emails and participated in two work chats.) It has become easier than ever with the advent of new technologies that let us juggle screens -- and even multiple things on each of those screens.
But Michael Robb, the group’s director of research, said multitasking should no longer be seen as “some desirable trait that makes you the best 21st-century worker.” For the Common Sense study, Robb not only oversaw the survey on technology behavior but he also authored a literature review on how multitasking affects children and adults. Of the more than 1,200 parents and teens surveyed, 48 percent of parents and 72 percent of teens said they felt the need to respond to texts and notifications immediately, almost guaranteeing distractions throughout the day.
Multitasking is a problem in a couple of ways, Robb said, citing recent neuroscience research on the practice. “Many people think multitasking does not hamper your ability to get things done,” he said. “But multitasking can decrease your ability to get things done well, because you have to reorient. That causes a certain level of cognitive fatigue, which can slow the rate of work.”
It makes a certain amount of sense if you think about it, Robb said. After all, you never get something for nothing, and it makes sense that splitting your focus wouldn't be great for improving your productivity.
Or, perhaps more tellingly, your child's productivity. Previous research from Common Sense found that more than half of teens watch television while they do their homework and that 60 percent say they text while they are studying. And most — 64 percent — say that multitasking does not hurt their work.
But, Robb said, multitasking can be particularly bad for students if they are juggling activities in class or doing schoolwork.
“You’re not encoding memories in the way you should be” when multitasking, Robb said. “If I’m browsing on Facebook while a lecturer is talking, I’m not forming memories that I need to retrieve later. “
Yes, even digital natives, the review finds, have problems with multitasking. The review included a 2009 paper that looked at 262 college students and found:
Heavy media multitaskers had a harder time filtering out irrelevant information. In other words, they may have developed a habit of treating all information they came across with equal attention instead of allotting steady attention to a particular task.
But looking at what's out there, there seems to be some strong suggestion that while all this multitasking is helping us feel productive, it's not actually letting us be that productive.