The research on multitasking is clear: It's not an effective means of accomplishing tasks. When performing multiple tasks at the same time, such as watching TV and doing homework, the mind tricks us into thinking we are succeeding at both tasks, when, in reality, we are doing poorly on both. Functional MRI studies from Vanderbilt University found that when the brain is forced to respond to multiple stimuli at the same time, task-switching occurs. Task-switching is the shifting of full attention from one activity to another. This leads to lost time as the brain tries to determine which task to carry out first. A 2009 review of 50 studies on digital use and learning found that multitasking prevents people from gaining a deep understanding of the information they are trying to learn. One particular study found that when students were encouraged to use the internet during lectures, they did not process the lecture as well as students who did not have internet access and, as a result, did poorer on tests.
Today many classrooms have wireless internet access and most teens have cell phones. Taking notes while surfing the web, texting in class and listening to a lecture while updating facebook are becoming the norm in many classrooms. On Bam! Radio, I, along with MIT professor Sherry Turkle, discussed practical solutions for educators in combating the problem of multitasking. The first and most powerful step is education. By informing students about the research, educators can help combat the prevalent myth that multitasking is an effective tool. Once educated, students can be asked, or hopefully will decide on their own, to turn off technology and focus on the task at hand.
For more practical ways educators and parents can help, listen to Bam! Radio's Inside The Minds of Teens and check out Dr. Sherry Turkle's new book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.