Who is better at multitasking? You or your teenager? According to multiple studies, the answer is: you. The regions of the brain involved in maintaining attention in the face of competing information is the frontal executive network, and it's not fully developed until young adulthood. That means you are beating out your teenager in this area.
None of us multitask very well. What our brains actually do is try to focus on our main task, the one we need to reach our goal, and protect that thought process from competing information and alternative sources of input. The frontal executive network acts like a firewall around our thought process to maintain focus on the task. Neuroscientists refer to this as response inhibition. Say you were writing a blog post and your sons launch a pitch battle over your new iPad (purely hypothetical!) Or there is a beep from incoming email, the phone rings, or a thought about Thanksgiving guests intrudes. How well one "multitasks" is a function of how well the firewall works. Is the original thought process protected?
James Booth and his colleagues at Northwestern University took adolescents and adults head to head in a functional MRI scanner that measured, in real time, how well those firewalls were operating. Adolescents were slower and less accurate than adults on the task. But the most striking finding was the brain activation pattern. The teens' brains lit up with significantly more intensity, in a greater number of areas. More neural resources were in play, reflecting more effort. Not only did the adults' firewalls work better, but teens were draining more brain resources to try to keep their firewalls up. Take home message? When teens are attempting to resist distracters during homework, they are rapidly draining neural resources that could otherwise be available for Algebra.
I frequently explain this study to families in my practice, because most teens believe they are better than their parents at handling multiple input streams. "I concentrate better on my homework with my iPod on..." And they are very convincing. The ironic part is that the same not-quite-fully-developed frontal executive network that is responsible for maintaining their firewall, is also the part of their brain that monitors how well their brain works. Yes, the same brain region that's responsible for complex attention is also responsible for self assessment, and it's not fully on line for teens in either case!
Being interrupted during homework time by incoming or outgoing texts, email, or visits to Facebook will drain away available neural resources and make it harder for your teen to complete their homework and effectively study. If you think about how hard it is for us adults to stay on task with all the similar interruptions we face during our work, Booth's study tells us that its even harder for our kids.
As parents we can make it easier for our children's brains to maintain effective firewalls around homework by helping to reduce the competing information. That is, we can make their brain's task easier by lending them a structure: during stretches of homework the phone is off, and stored in another room. The laptop is disconnected from the internet and therefore Facebook and email are not available (really, kids rarely need to research during homework and don't need an actual internet connection).
Easy for me to say, right? The problem is, the immediacy of communication makes it difficult for parents to set limits. Teens (often rightly so) believe their friends will feel slighted, or they will miss major social events, if they are confined to "radio silence" for hours at a time each night during homework.
Unfortunately, the problem is not limited to teens. All of us adults must address the barrage of incoming information, while balancing the "NOW!" demands of communication. Here is an effective strategy that we can lend to our teens (and use ourselves) to manage that information, while still feeling connected:
The 10 minute communication break.
Have your teen schedule a 10 minute communication break every hour. For example, this could be from 2:50 until 3:00, and from 3:50 until 4:00. During that time they can respond to texts, write emails, go on Facebook, and use their cell. After the 10 minutes, all devices are turned off and the internet is unplugged until the next "10 till the hour."
When adults use this strategy, they are often surprised by their increase in productivity and reduced stress. Many create an outgoing email that says they will respond at 10 till the hour, in order to manage expectations from colleagues and friends. Your teen can do the same with their email or voice mail, writing this on their Facebook wall, and notifying friends in advance.
Using this strategy allows parents to "put down the rope" in their ongoing tug of war against cell phones, texts, and Facebook during homework time. In past blogs I have written about the difference between being a helicopter parent and lending children strategies that they can use to mange themselves. This is a great example. A hovering parent constantly nags their teen to stop texting, or confiscates their phones during homework time, taking the self regulation out of the adolescent's hands. In contrast, the 10 minute communication break structure offers teens a way to effectively modulate their own external distractions. When parents model similar strategies to manage their own communication vs. task flow at home and work, it creates significant buy in from teens.