Kids and Technology

The Multitasking GenerationIn late March, Time magazine featured an excellent article about the ill-affects of personal technology on Junior High, High School and College age students entitled, The Multitasking Generation. The subheading of the article’s title reads, “They’re emailing, IMing and downloading while writing a history essay, what is all that digital juggling doing to kids’ brains and their family life?” The article then proceeds to answer this question.

The article opens with the a typical scene from the Cox family: at 9:30pm, while the mom, Georgina, is tidying up the living room, and the dad, Stephen, is ‘wolfing’ down dinner alone in the kitchen, their two children, Piers (their 14 year-old son) and Bronte (his twin sister) are engaged in various projects on two separate computers. Piers has been ‘holed up’ in his bedroom and logged onto MySpace and AOL Instant Messenger (IM) for the past three hours while downloading pictures and jamming to his iTunes. Bronte, having ‘commandeered her dad’s iMac’ is feverishly IMing while talking on her cell phone and ‘chipping’ away on homework.

Multitasking even works its way into interpersonal communication as Piers explains, “When I talk to my best friend, Eloy, he’ll have one earpiece [of his iPod] in and one out.” If Bronte’s friends fear that they are not getting her full attention, she “make[s] is very clear that she is, even though [she] is listening to music.”

But is all this multitasking simply a harmless and fun use of technology, or is it actually detrimental to these students who appear to be constantly immersed in their gadgets? Anthropologist Elinor Ochs, director of UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families, is concerned, “I’m not certain how the children can monitor all those things at the same time, but I think it is pretty consequential for the structure of the family relationship.”

In the case of the Cox’s (who, unfortunately, probably typify many American families), after the parents and children arrive at home, the children are immediately engaged in their personal technology; usually at the expense of any real conversation with their parents or simple courtesy; half the time Piers and Bronte ignore their father and don’t stop what they are doing to offer any form of welcome.

But it is not just family and personal relationships that appear to be negatively affected by this technological multitasking, students’ overall lives could be seriously impacted. Jordan Grafman, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke contends, “Kids that are instant messaging while doing homework, playing games online and watching TV, I predict, aren’t going to do well in the long run.” According the article, “Decades of research (not to mention common sense) indicate that the quality of one’s output and depth of thought deteriorates as one attends to ever more tasks. Some are concerned about the disappearance of mental downtime to relax and reflect.”

Apparently, our brains ‘can’t handle’ extreme multitasking. “It may seem that a teenage girl is writing an instant message, burning a CD and telling her mother that she’s doing homework–all at the same time–but what’s really going on is a rapid toggling among tasks rather than simultaneous processing.” In other words, our brains aren’t actually doing all those things at once; they are attempting to do them sequentially, which requires “rapid toggling.”

David E. Meyer, Director of Brain Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan explains, “…the ability to multiprocess has its limits, even among young adults. When people try to perform two or more related tasks either at the same time or alternating rapidly between them, errors go way up and it takes far longer–often double the time or more–to get the jobs done than if they were done sequentially…If a teenager is trying to have a conversation on an email chat line while doing algebra, she’ll suffer a decrease in efficiency, compared to if she just thought about algebra until she was done.”

This kind of technological multitasking also appears to have a negative impact on a student’s ability to think. While students are able to make “brilliant use of media” in their college presentations, the “habit of grazing among many data streams leaves telltale signs in their writing, according to some educators.” A professor at Stanford observes, “The breadth of their knowledge and their ability to find answers has just burgeoned, but my impression is that their ability to write clear, focused, extended narratives has eroded somewhat.” College professors are even assigning their students fewer full-length books and more excerpts and articles in order to “adjust” to this generation’s learning habits. Apparently, the ability to sustain thought over a long period of time has decreased, even among college students!

Claudia Koonz, professor of history at Duke University, contends, “Their belief in the simple answer, put together in a visual way is, I think, dangerous. It’s as if they have too many windows open on their hard drive. In order to have a taste for sifting through different layers of truth, you have to stay with a topic and pursue it deeply, rather than go across the surface with your toolbar.” Koonz herself “tries to encourage her students to find a quiet spot on campus to just think, cell phone off, laptop packed away.”

Also, when students are so “plugged in” it often takes away from other activities. An informal poll of 60 students discovered that the majority of those students were concerned that the blur of multitasking was taking away from exercise, sleep and meals.

In one of the closing paragraphs, the article makes the statement, “…it’s valuable, even essential, to occasionally slow down, unplug and take time to think about something for a while.” No kidding! If students are not trained to do this, the long-term implications could be disastrous. The future leaders of this country will be unable to think, write, or read well.

But I also think there is a spiritual component to this kind of multitasking, especially as it involves technology. Inherent in this kind of multitasking is the indulgence in stimuli. An indulgence that keeps students away from dealing with what’s really going on inside of them. If they can fill every moment with cell phone conversations, music, IM, movies, etc., then they will never be left with the frightening, yet substantial, questions of life and the world. If they can immerse themselves in the superficial, they never have to be confronted with any thing of real significance. They will be hollow their whole life long; to the detriment of their souls.

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