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What Multitasking is Really Doing to Your Child

Paraphrased from The Atlantic:

“The multitasking revolution: texting and instant messaging while downloading music to an iPod, updating a Facebook page, completing a homework assignment and keeping an eye on the TV.”

Does that sound like your child? Did you know:

“53 percent of students in grades seven through 12 report consuming some other form of media while watching television; 58 percent multitask while reading; 62 percent while using the computer; and 63 percent while listening to music.” – The Atlantic

When I think of multitasking, I am reminded of this poem: If you give Mom a Muffin…

Mum's Muffin

The idea of multitasking is to get more done in less time but really, not much is getting much done at all…

Why You Can’t Multitask

The best tips for learning suggest that children should actually be studying in a quiet room free from distractions. If your kids are telling you they can multi-task, put them to the test with David Copperfield’s challenge and see how they fare…

How did they go? Hopefully, this test will give them a little insight into why they can’t multitask.

“Many of us believe we can multitask. However, the brain cannot concentrate well on more than one thing at a time… People who claim to do multiple attention-demanding tasks at once are actually switching between the tasks repeatedly. Every transfer of attention from one task to another requires resources, as your brain must remember or reconstruct where you were on the abandoned task when you come back to it. The first task can also interfere with the representation of the second task in your memory.” – Welcome to Your Child’s Brain

In a nutshell, multitasking means:

  • we are more prone to making mistakes
  • we take longer to complete the tasks than we would if we did them one by one

The Real Cost of Multitasking

1. Diminished Concentration

Probably the most significant problem with multitasking is the long-term cost. Individuals who chronically multitask were found to have diminished performance when they single-tasked. They were less focused because they tended to be more easily distracted from the task at hand even when they were single-tasking.

“One study found that university students who multitask more often performed worse than those who multitask less often at tests of distractibility and task-switching ability… The performance of high multitaskers was more severely impaired by distractors, compared to low multitaskers, though the two groups performed equally well when no distractors were present. In other tasks, high multitaskers also had more trouble ignoring irrelevant items in their memory and switching back and forth between two sets of rules.” – Welcome to Your Child’s Brain

2. Increased Stress

“the area in the brain most involved with multi-tasking is the one most likely to be affected by stress. The pre-frontal cortex helps to assess tasks, prioritise them and assign mental resources. It also marks the spot where we left off a task so we can return to it later. This area is affected by prolonged stress.” – Multitasking Test

When we’re doing too many things at the same time, our brain responds by pumping out stress hormones and adrenaline which can affect mood and emotions. It can also lead to problems such as headaches, trouble sleeping, and stomach problems. In the long-term, it can cause other health problems, such as back pain, heart disease, and depression (HealthDay).

3. Impaired Memory Formation

Even when chronic multitaskers are able to block out distractors to complete the task at hand, there are other cognitive costs in maintaining concentration.

“researchers asked a group of 20-somethings to sort index cards in two trials, once in silence and once while simultaneously listening for specific tones in a series of randomly presented sounds. The subjects’ brains coped with the additional task by shifting responsibility from the hippocampus—which stores and recalls information—to the striatum, which takes care of rote, repetitive activities. Thanks to this switch, the subjects managed to sort the cards just as well with the musical distraction—but they had a much harder time remembering what, exactly, they’d been sorting once the experiment was over.” – The Atlantic

Stress can also affect other regions of the brain, such as the hippocampus which helps form new memories and accesses existing ones. Damage to it can make it difficult for people to acquire new skills and facts. Stress hormones can also reduce short-term memory. – Multitasking Test

4. Loss of Creativity

When you’re too busy multitasking and keeping up with the many tasks you’re occupied with simultaneously, you don’t have time to get creative. This is because the computer in your head – your brain – has devoted too many resources to juggling the tasks you have on hand that you have none left for coming up with great ideas.

Managing multiple tasks at the same time requires a lot of working memory and “executive control” – the ability to direct and focus your attention, says a 2010 study in the journal Intelligence. But working memory and the ability to focus actually work against the cognitive processes that generate light-bulb moments, says a 2012 study at the University of Illinois at Chicago.” – The Wallstreet Journal

5. Reduced IQ

Multitasking makes you stupid and not just in the way that you make stupid mistakes – it actually causes a significant drop in IQ.

“study found the average worker’s functioning IQ, a temporary qualitative state, drops 10 points when multitasking. That is more than double the four-point drop that occurs when someone smokes marijuana.” – Multitasking Test

6. Multitasking addiction

Multitasking releases stress hormones and adrenaline. The release of adrenaline creates a rush that can be addictive for some. Without it, they feel bored, which then creates a positive feedback for more multitasking.

“I get bored if it’s not all going at once,” said a 17-year-old quoted in the study. – The Atlantic

7. Poorer learning

Students who multitask while they study don’t learn as much – they don’t understand as much and they remember less.

“evidence from psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience suggests that when students multitask while doing schoolwork, their learning is far spottier and shallower than if the work had their full attention. They understand and remember less, and they have greater difficulty transferring their learning to new contexts.” –The Creativity Post

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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