Homework and Headphones: Multitasking Myths

by Cheryl Feuer Gedzelman

Amanda is doing her homework at her laptop. Meanwhile, she receives a text message from a friend and answers that. She later takes a break to check Facebook. All the while, she is listening to her i-pod. No wonder it takes so long for her to complete her homework!

A 2005 report by the Kaiser Foundation found that nearly 60% of 7th – 12th graders interviewed reported multi-tasking while doing their homework. (This included watching TV, listening to music, surfing the Web and chatting online). Some students fail to thrive under these conditions, but others seem to be doing fine. After all, multi-tasking is all the rage these days.

Do you ever wonder if your child is learning as effectively and thoroughly as he would if he took away the electronics and just focused on homework for awhile? Since my own pre-teen is a great fan of technology, I’ve been wondering myself, so I did some research.

Multitasking Research

A 2006 UCLA study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to evaluate brain activity on young adults both while multitasking and while focusing on one activity. According to Russell Poldrack, co-author of the study, “Our results told us that people can learn under either condition, but the way they learned and the brain systems involved were different. For the task performed while multi-tasking, the subjects’ knowledge was less flexible, meaning they could not extrapolate their knowledge to different contexts.” Researchers also found that while focusing on one activity, the brain uses the hippocampus for memory, however, while multi-tasking, the brain uses the stratum, which leads to knowledge that is specific to one situation and cannot be generalized to different situations. Consequently, while multitasking, you get a superficial understanding of the material, which may work for a test the next day, but may not be internalized for future applications. (I Said, ‘Not While You Study!’ Ghassemi, The Washington Post, 9/5/2006) Therefore, if you are learning something new and want to remember it long term, it is important to concentrate on that alone.

The most interesting part of my research showed that while we think we are multitasking, we really aren’t. According to Edward Hallowell, MD, director of the Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health in Sudbury, MA, true multitasking is a myth. “What people really do is shift their attention from one task to the next in rapid succession. That reduces the quality of work on any one task, because you’re ignoring it for milliseconds at a time.” (Attention Deficit Farrell, WebMD Magazine, Sept./Oct. 2008) If you are writing an essay, for example, each time you stop to answer a text message, your brain has to re-adjust when returning to the essay. It would be better to work on the essay for 20-30 minutes without any interruptions and then take a planned break.

Mobile Phones

Another multitasking example is talking on a mobile phone while driving. The millisecond it takes for an accident to occur may not allow enough time for the brain to shift from the conversation to driving and reacting. Research has shown that cell phone use while driving increases accidents, and consequently, many states, and Washington, DC, have laws against mobile phone use while driving.

Background Music

If you ask a kid to concentrate on homework only, he may say that he needs his music to concentrate. While music that you are actively listening to or singing along to impedes concentration, it is less clear whether background music does the same. According to William Stixrud, a Silver Spring neuropsychologist, for some kids music functions as white noise, drowning out distractions. He suggests that students try the same task with and without music to see which works better (Ghassemi). For some kids, background music, such as classical music, may improve their concentration.

What to do

In today’s world, multitasking is a way of life. For parents, it cannot be avoided. So how can we continue to multitask and accomplish what we need to?
Do not multitask tasks that require thought, analysis, and judgment, like many homework assignments. Give these tasks your full attention to maximize your performance. Take breaks to check e-mail, phone calls, or go for a walk, but concentrate exclusively on your task for at least 20 minutes straight.
If you must multitask, choose 2 activities, one which is mindless. For example, folding laundry or doing dishes can easily be paired with talking on the phone. Regarding homework, limit multitasking to background music and using the internet to help research a project or calling a friend specifically about a project.
You and your child can do an experiment. Try an activity while concentrating exclusively on it and again while multitasking. Which way has the better result?
Give your kids a multimedia reward after completing homework.
Keep an eye on your child by having him do homework in a family area or have an open door policy to his room.
Share this article with your child and discuss the impact of multitasking. Ultimately, he will have to run his own life.
Finally, how do parents multitask? Do we “listen” to our kids while doing one or two other activities, or do we give them our full attention? It’s true that we have too much to do each day, but we, too, will improve productivity and reduce stress while keeping multitasking to a minimum.

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