The Myth of Multitasking
Why research shows its not productive for parents or teens
Posted May 20, 2016
Multitasking has become a buzzword in our culture; it almost seems like a requirement for both parents and adolescents. In fact, most mothers say they spend about half of their waking hours doing two or more things at once[i].
Unfortunately, research demonstrates that most of us think we are better at multitasking than we actually are, especially when it comes to juggling electronic information. The brain is only able to process and pay attention to one thing at a time, so multitasking actually reduces productivity. According to the research of Clifford Nass, people who try to multitask between media (for example, watching TV while texting, or jumping between e-mails and work tasks) actually perform very poorly on certain key skills: being able to filter out irrelevant information, keeping their memory organized, and switching from one task to another. In other words, compared to people who attempt one task at a time, they are more distracted by irrelevant information, less able to focus, and less accurate in what they are doing[ii]. While we think that we are getting a lot done, in reality, multitasking actually adds to the level of stress in our lives.
As I discuss in my book Swimming Upstream, Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture (Oxford University Press, 2015), these findings are even more concerning when applied to our preteen and teenage children, who are known for their frequent use of technology and for multitasking as a way to balance their social and academic lives. One study of tween girls ages 8-12 found that the girls who multitasked by spending a lot of time watching TV, videos and using online communication were the most likely to feel lower levels of social success, to say they didn’t feel “normal”, to report sleeping less, and to say they had friends who their parents perceive of as bad influences. In sum, the researchers concluded that multitasking harms the social and emotional development of girls because they are missing out on learning how to stay focused and to have meaningful face-to-face communication.[iii] Add this to the research cited above that shows multitasking can also lead to poor analytic reasoning abilities (not being able to discern the most relevant information, to pay attention to complete a task, to adequately store new information in your memory) and it is clear that multitasking can lead to poor outcomes for all kids.
So what is the takeaway for parents? You might tend to for praise your children for their ability to do multiple things at once (e.g., switching between Snapchat, Instagram, listening to music, texting friends, all while doing homework). Try to refrain from modeling or reinforcing this behavior. The reality is that your child is actually stretching out homework time and will be less likely to remember what he or she is learning, thus experiencing more distraction and stress. If your children are staying up late at night on their computers, insisting that they are working on assignments for school, investigate how much time they are actually focusing on the assignment versus switching her screens back and forth between social media and schoolwork. It may seem like they can do it all, but it is actually causing reduced learning and less time for rest and sleep. Instead, help your children learn to focus fully on the task in front of them[iv].
An experiment to try: For seven days, complete an experiment with your child. Require that both you and your child spend a block of time turning off all social media (including phones) and doing just one thing at a time, whether it is working, studying, practicing, cleaning, or even reading a book. At the end of the week, evaluate the results. Did you or your child actually enjoy social time more because you first completed other tasks? [v]
In sum, help your preteen or teen learn to focus on doing one thing at a time and becoming fully present with sustained attention for each activity. Start by refraining from multitasking in your own life. This practice is definitely countercultural, but research supports that this is the way our brains can work best.
[i] Bianchi, S. M., Robinson, J. P., & Milkie, M. A. (2006). Changing rhythms of American family life. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
[ii] Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, A. D. (2009). Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106(37), 15583-15587. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0903620106
[iii] Pea, R. et al. (2012). Media use, face-to-face communication, media multitasking, and social wellbeing among 8- to 12-year-old girls. Developmental Psychology 48(2), 327-336.
[iv] Cohen-Sandler, R. (2006). Stressed-Out Girls: Helping Them Thrive in the Age of Pressure. New York, NY: Penguin Books; Homayoun, A. (2012). The Myth of the Perfect Girl: Helping Our Daughters Find Authentic Success and Happiness in School and Life. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
[v] Homayoun, A. (2012). Myth of the Perfect Girl: Helping our daughters find authentic success and happiness in school and life. New York: Perigree Press/Penguin Group.