Multi-taskers fooling themselves about their efficiency

Published 2:49 am Monday, March 27, 2006

By Staff
They are Generation M, the multi-taskers. Time magazine's March 27 cover story examines kids who might be “too wired for their own good.”
Anthropologists are studying the ramifications of lives tethered to electronic gadgets, such as 65 percent of the population subscribing to mobile phones.
A family of four technically shares a three-bedroom home in Van Nuys, Calif., but psychologically “each exists in his or her own little universe.”
The boy twin's idea of doing homework is to prop open a book in his lap and do a problem or write a sentence while his computer loads, “getting it done a little bit at a time.”
His sister says, “My parents always tell me I can't do homework while listening to music, but they don't understand that it helps me concentrate. If a friend thinks she's not getting my full attention, I just make it very clear that she is, even though I'm also listening to music.”
The UCLA anthropologist noted that when the working parent, usually the dad, arrived home at the end of the day, the other spouse and kids were so absorbed with what they were doing that they didn't give him the time of day. Dear ol' dad was greeted only about a third of the time, usually with a perfunctory “hi.” About half the time the kids ignored him or didn't stop monitoring their various electronic gadgets.
It may seem like we've always conducted Instant Messenger conversations while watching “American Idol” on TV and Googling, but 15 years ago, when Savannah was born, most home computers weren't even linked to the Internet.
A Stanford survey of adolescents done in 1990 identified a radio/CD player as the one device they couldn't live without. The computer won a 2004 follow-up. Today, 82 percent of kids are online by seventh grade, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
What teens love about the computer is that it not only offers radio/CD, but also games, movies, e-mail, IM and MySpace.
A 2005 survey of Americans ages 8-18 by the Kaiser Family Foundation found not that kids are spending a bigger chunk of time consuming electronic media - that's holding steady at 6.5 hours a day, like a job - but that via multi-tasking, say listening to iTunes while watching a DVD and IMing friends simultaneously - they're packing 8.5 hours into those 6.5.
I'm impressed by their technical prowess, but I also remember the unsettling feeling of accompanying a busload of twitchy, stimulation-craving teens to Chicago Feb. 7. The instant a movie quit playing they began braying for another disc to be inserted, as though afraid of the quiet.
Such habits may prepare them for frienzied workplaces, but as Jordan Grafman, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, puts it, “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.”
Common sense suggests that the more tasks you try to juggle, the quality of your output and depth of thought deteriorate.
There's no time left to relax or reflect. Research done on multi-tasking indicates the brain doesn't, really.
When a teenage girl tells her mom she's writing an instant message, burning a CD and doing homework all at the same time, she's kidding herself.
Tasks that seem to be occurring simultaneously actually are being prioritized by “rapid toggling.”
Other research reveals the relationship between stimulation and performance forms a bell curve. A little stimulation, whether a latte or a blaring stereo, can temporarily boost performance, but too much is stressful and causes performance to fall off because your brain requires rest to consolidate thoughts and memories.
Teens who pack every quiet moment with phone calls and other forms of e-stimulation condition their brains to overexcited states until they have the concentration of sand fleas.
I guess it's really out of control on campus, where MBA programs at UCLA and the University of Virginia are looking into interrupting Internet access during lectures to force students to focus. Otherwise, they're tuning out some of our greatest minds to check their e-mail incessantly.
On the flip side, Gen M is particularly nimble at finding information and analyzing visual data, so profs are more apt to combine film, audio clips and PowerPoint presentations to capture their fleeting attention spans. These same profs are less likely to assign a full book in favor of excerpts or articles.
A history professor at Duke University finds her students have no tolerance for ambiguity. “Their belief in the simple answer, put together in a visual way, is, I think, dangerous,” Claudia Koontz said. “It's as if they have too many windows open on their hard drive. 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.”
Patricia Wallace, a techno-psychologist who directs the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth program, thinks the allure of e-mail is not unlike a slot machine: “You have intermittent, variable reinforcement. You are not sure you are going to get a reward every time or how often you will, so you keep pulling the handle.”
It's nuts that so many kids lead such highly scheduled lives that there's no time left for old-fashioned socializing and family meals. In my college classes back in the dark ages, we actually spent time discussing how we would cope when we were awash in leisure time from our labor-saving devices. Not that they would enslave us.
Obit: Former WNDU-TV weathercaster Dick Addis, 74, died March 19 at his home in Florida. The Chicago native was on the air from 1965 until the mid-1990s, summing up his forecasts with one weather word of the day.