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Multitasking Problems: Can Teens Really Learn While Multitasking?

Nowadays, it’s more of a surprise to see a teen who does not have ear buds in, their phone out, and the computer open all at the same time. This notion that we can and should be doing multiple things at once has seeped into our every day lives. Is it really possible to multi-task? What are the benefits? the repercussions?

Your Teen asked pediatricians, Dr. Elizabeth Hellerstein and Dr. Steven Wexberg, about multitasking and its impact on our teens.

Are your teens having trouble multitasking?

Q: Why do teens multitask compulsively?

Hellerstein: Easy access. Teens can easily reach for their cell phones and computers—teens love distractions. It’s very easy to text a quick message while doing homework. We live in a plugged in, electronic time and teens are masterful at multitasking.

Wexberg: Teens thrive on lots of action. Multitasking provides constant brain stimulation.

Q: What effect can multitasking have on learning?

Hellerstein: When students are distracted while studying, they may be learning facts but are not able to integrate them and apply them to a higher level of thinking. Doctors and educators worry about how this superficial learning will impact long term recall and application of the knowledge and skills.

Wexberg: Multitasking gets in the way of effective learning. I recommend that teens study with total focus and without distraction.

Q: Can multitasking really boost efficiency? If teens multitask, what are the costs?

Hellerstein: David Meyer, PhD, of University of Maryland says that switching back and forth from one task to another takes its toll. As you’re switching, you are not concentrating on either task. You need a mental warm up to resume the suspended task. He refers to back and forth switching as “Mental Brownout.” Two things cannot be done simultaneously. Multitasking translates into less efficient learning that takes longer to complete.

Wexberg: When the goal is efficiency, like stuffing envelopes, then multitasking is effective. When the goal is to complete schoolwork, then efficiency may be convenient but not effective. Trying to learn while multitasking will likely impede meaningful learning dealing with memory, insight or understanding. That’s why multitasking is bad for students.

Q: How can media multitasking affect a teen’s social development?

Hellerstein & Wexberg: Teens who are constantly “plugged in” may become more isolated and less socially skilled. Communication via the Internet minimizes inhibitions. In face-to-face situations, computer teens may feel less confident. In addition, text messages and emails can be taken out of context; teens may say things that are misunderstood; and hurtful words are easier to hurl.

Q: Can media multitasking impact a teenager’s attention span over time?

Hellerstein: Teens accustomed to multitasking often require constant stimuli and get bored easily. Focusing on one thing becomes very challenging. In our practice, we are starting to see older teens for “pseudo ADD/ADHD.” Teens heading off to college are finding that it is difficult to stay focused. Sitting in a quiet room and tuning out the distractions around them is challenging. These teens may request meds for ADD/ADHD (some may even have tried friend’s meds and found them helpful). Yet it is often the multitasking that has fostered their short attention spans.

Wexberg: Multitasking is the antithesis of mindfulness meditation. Meditation supports increased awareness, learning to be in the moment cognitively, physically and emotionally and deepens concentration. Multitasking does not cultivate patience or develop focus.

Q: When should parents be concerned that multitasking is negatively affecting their teens?

Both experts agree: Sleep disorders are a red flag. When teens stay up way too late and have a difficult time settling down, they cannot relax enough to fall asleep. This cycle can lead to sleep disorders. Other signs are falling grades, irritability, depression and excessive use of online gaming.

Q: What parenting tips do you have to help alleviate the problem?

Hellerstein: Parents need to set limits. Do not allow computers and TVs in bedrooms, and make sure phones are off during meals. Teach younger teens to unplug; it gets much more difficult as they get older. Some teens can self-regulate and turn off the media when necessary. Many others need parents to intervene. One idea is to do an experiment with your teen. Compare how long it takes for math or English homework with and without media multitasking. They may see the benefits of focusing on one thing and being more productive with their time. Most importantly, parents should use common sense and remember that it is always ok to “unplug” their teens when they think it is necessary.

Wexberg: Be proactive. Home technology is a privilege not a right. Parents should consider developing a contract with their teens. Depending on the teen’s age, Parents also need the ability to monitor with periodic re-evaluation.

Dr.-Beth-HellersteinDr. Beth Hellerstein, University Hospital pediatrician at Green Road Pediatrics and assistant clinical professor at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine.



Dr.-Steven-WexbergDr. Steven Wexberg, staff pediatrician at Cleveland Clinic Beachwood Family Health Center.