Reducing Multitasking Among Children

Michael Mercier
November 27, 2019

The practice of multitasking with digital devices is rampant among children.  Children multitask in three basic ways: some use two or three devices at once, others use two or more apps on a single device, and yet others use a digital device while also performing another non-digital task, such as eating lunch.

Multitasking has become so routine that many children have lost any sense that it may be inappropriate at times.  For example, 35% of teens say they don’t think it’s rude or disrespectful to use their phones during class to play games, use social media, or stream video (Screen Education, 2018).

Unfortunately, multitasking is unhealthy.  Parents intuitively sense this — they sense that multitasking fragments children’s focus, shortens their attention span, prevents them from engaging deeply in the task at hand, and reduces their productivity.  Scientific research validates parents’ intuition. For example, researchers at the University of Sussex did MRI scans of the brains of people who frequently multitask and found they had a lower gray matter density in a region of the brain responsible for certain cognitive function than did those who don’t multitask.  Another study out of the University of London found that people who multitask while taking cognitive tests experienced a 15-point drop in IQ, which would be similar to the effect from smoking marijuana or staying up all night. Yet another study published in the American Journal of Experimental Psychiatry found that multitasking reduces productivity on each task by 40%.   

Given the ill health effects that result from multitasking it is incumbent upon parents to reduce multitasking among children.  Parents can accomplish this using both short-term and long-term strategies.  

In the short-term parents can limit the amount of time children spend multitasking simply by imposing limits.  For example, parents can forbid children from using more than one device at a time. Or, they can forbid them from using a device while doing other non-digital things, such as eating meals, talking to others, doing homework, or lying in bed trying to get to sleep. 

Over the long-term parents can help children develop the ability to independently self-limit their multitasking through a strategy of cognitive engagement.  Parents have a variety of tactics to use to accomplish this.

First, parents can educate children over time about the ill health effects of multitasking.  Parents can quickly and easily arm themselves with the knowledge they need to do this by conducting simple Google searches to generate articles and reports on these ill health effects. 

Second, parents can help children deeply internalize this knowledge about the ill-health effects of multitasking through active learning.  For example, parents can print an article on the latest research on the ill-health effects of multitasking, have their child read it, and then get them to articulate how they felt about the research findings, whether they feel the research findings are valid and accurate, and what they think the findings suggest people should do about their multitasking.

Third, parents can get children to reflect upon their own personal experience with multitasking.  For example, parents can ask children to verbalize how they feel when they aren’t permitted to use their phones during meals, versus how they feel when they do use their phone during meals.  How is the experience different? What is good about it? What is bad about it? How do they feel it helps them? What does it suggest for their future multitasking behavior? 

Finally, parents can turn the tables and challenge children to use their knowledge of the ill-health effects of multitasking, and their insights about their own multitasking behaviors, to independently develop their own rules for themselves to limit their own multitasking.  

If parents take this multi-pronged approach to addressing multitasking they will increase the likelihood of having a deeper, longer-term impact on children’s multitasking behavior, and, subsequently, on their cognitive health, productivity, and social intelligence.  For some children such an approach may be transformational and result in their developing much healthier screen habits. For others there might not be an immediate impact, but it will at least serve to raise their consciousness about the issue and serve as a touchstone experience that may inspire them at some later time to take the initiative reduce their multitasking on their own. 

Michael Mercier is President of Screen Education, a non-profit organization that conducts research and provides seminars to school administrators, teachers, parents, and students on tech addiction and how to address it.  Reach him at Michael.Mercier@ScreenEducation.org

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