Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Perils of Multitasking - MSN Lifestyle - Family & Parenting

The Perils of Multitasking - MSN Lifestyle - Family & Parenting

Growing up, we did homework quietly, save for a little background music. But that was so last century. Today, middle schoolers are downloading iTunes, "texting" friends on their cell phones, surfing the web and checking their Web pages -- all while reading a book for English or studying for a math test.

In fact, more kids are spending more time using more media simultaneously than ever before. In 2004, a study of 2000 8- to 18-year-olds undertaken by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a research and policy think tank, documented what many parents have long known: 81 percent of Generation M (as the study dubbed them) are experts in "media multi-tasking," juggling various types of media for as much as 8 and a half hours of "screen time" a day.

"That's what adults spend at a full-time job, with a little extra thrown in for overtime," says Victoria Rideout, M.A., who directed the report. In late 2006, her team further refined its conclusions: Two-thirds of the time that kids are doing homework on the computer they are usually doing something else too.

Brave New World?
There's nothing new about multitasking. Every mom knows that being able to prepare dinner, help a 5th grader with math homework, schedule an orthodontist appointment, and make sure a toddler isn't sticking bananas into the DVD player is part of the job. What's more, in order to excel at school and beyond, it's critical to be able to navigate the byways of our multimedia world. The question is: At what cost? While parents are dazzled by their kids' ability to move seamlessly from one technology to another, how much are they learning?

Not as not as much as they could be. "Distractions can inhibit a child from learning new facts or concepts," says Russell Poldrack, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at UCLA, who has been using brain-imaging techniques to study what happens when we try to learn more than one thing at a time. "Even if he learns something while multi-tasking, his ability to remember what he learns later or use it in other contexts will be diminished."

That's because the brain takes in information in different ways. Very simply: When you're learning new facts ("What is photosynthesis?"), you rely on declarative memory, which is stored in the hippocampus. Memories in the hippocampus are easier to recall in different situations. For instance: Once you solve a geometry problem, you'll be able to apply that same principle to a slightly different problem in the next chapter.

However, when we're distracted, the brain bypasses the hippocampus and relies on the striatum, which is really designed for recalling how to do tasks you have done so often that they've become second-nature, such as which route you need to take to walk to school. Information stored in the striatum is tied closely to the specific situation in which it is learned. (We remember that geometry principle only if it's presented in exactly the same way on a test.) What's more, while it may seem as if we're doing many things simultaneously, the brain can really only focus on one thing at a time, unless the other skills involved are purely automatic.

"The brain is a lot like a computer," says William R. Stixrud, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist in Silver Spring, Maryland. "You may have several screens open on your desktop, but you're able to think about only one at a time." When a child is doing homework for two minutes, then answering instant-messages for another two, then shifting back to homework, and so on, the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (the brain's administrative assistant) must choreograph all those conflicting moves. The result: He works more slowly, less thoroughly. For those struggling with attention disorders, the problems may be magnified.

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