On more than one occasion, I’ve peeked into my 14-year-old son’s room to see if he was doing his homework, only to find him surrounded by gadgets. He’s listening to his iPod, working on his computer, texting on his phone, chatting with friends on his Facebook page, and using Skype with another friend. Somewhere among the gadgets is his homework.
As a parent, I wonder how much gets done when he is working on so many different things, but this is the new state of normal for today’s teens. They’re consummate media jugglers, switching frequently back and forth among cell phones, iPods, television, video games, and computers.
On average, young people today spend more than seven hours a day with some kind of technology or media, according to the 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds. This is up from six-plus hours in 2005. Plus, 58 percent of 7th through 12th graders say that they multitask “most of the time” with at least one type of media—and they’re generally doing so while working on homework.
The effect of multitasking on adolescent cognitive brain development is still a mystery because research is ongoing and, as yet, inconclusive. But, like any parent, I wonder what all this technological multitasking is doing to my own son’s brain, especially since all kids are different. Some students can multitask and do homework successfully, while others need quiet and fewer technological interruptions. Some may be able to multitask while doing language arts homework, while others know they need to “unplug” when it comes to math or physics homework. Because teen brains are still developing—and will continue to develop until age 25—I feel sure that all this multitasking must make a difference.
A recent study at Stanford University found that frequent switching between tasks directly influences a person’s ability to evaluate and perform critical thinking. In addition, those who multitask frequently have a hard time separating distracting information from that which is vital. Each time the college-age study subjects switched tasks, they had to reorient themselves, resulting in a loss of time and of focus.
All of this may explain why 47 percent of heavy multitaskers (those who multitask more than 16 hours per day) in the Kaiser Family Foundation study received mostly C’s (or lower grades) in school and took more time to complete homework. Those same multitasking kids were more likely to get into trouble and to be sad and bored.
Where are parents in these cases? In all honesty, we parents love gadgets just as much as our teens do. Watching the excitement over Apple’s release of a new iPad demonstrates how adult consumers continue to want the next new technology thing. Like adults, today’s teens are the ultimate technology consumers. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation study, cell phone ownership among 8- to 18-year-olds increased from 39 percent in 2004 to 66 percent in 2009; 76 percent of teens own iPods. Eighty-four percent have Internet access at home, and 79 percent have three or more televisions in their household.
All of this raises the question of whether parents are actively monitoring gadget use by teens. Parents are, but most of the time they’re panicked and clueless about what to do, says Donald Roberts, a professor emeritus of communication at Stanford University.
“Nine times out of 10, parents are paying for this stuff and allowing their kids to have this stuff in their bedrooms,” Roberts says. “Parents cannot expect their kids to behave differently when they are addicted to the computer, TV set, or an iPhone too.”
Unfortunately, gadget use and ownership is almost completely unsupervised by parents according to the Kaiser study. A majority of teens surveyed did not have any rules about the types of media they could use or the amount of time they could spend using a particular media form. For those teens who did have some rules in place about using media—the computer was the gadget most regulated—16 percent said they didn’t have any rules about what content they could view or how much time they could spend on the computer. Further, 71 percent of teens reported having a television in their bedrooms, complete with satellite or cable hookup and premium channels.
There’s no question that for many people, cell phones, computers, and other tech devices make our lives easier. But that’s not the attraction for teens; for them, it’s all about communicating with friends 24/7, says Anastasia Goodstein, founder and editor of Ypulse, a market research firm that studies the behavior of teens.
Most of a teen’s time with media is spent communicating; they text and instant message their friends and update their statuses on Facebook. These activities have become such a part of—or a substitute for—face-to-face communication that experts worry that today’s teens are losing their ability to communicate directly. It’s up to parents to help their teens learn to find the middle ground between too much, and just enough, involvement with technology, Goodstein says.
“I don’t think that all multitasking is necessarily negative,” Goodstein says. “It’s all about finding a balance that allows teens to use technology to play, socialize, and study, while also valuing offline [face to face] interpersonal relationships, the natural world outside, and events that happen in real life, as well as being able to concentrate and focus when doing homework and driving.”
Because technology is so important to our children’s personal, academic, and, eventually, work lives, finding that balance depends on how each person actually uses media. The key aspect, says Kaveri Subrahmanyam, associate director at the Children’s Digital Media Center in Los Angeles, is for kids to use media strategically.
“To be successful at multitasking, you have to know when to do it,” Subrahmanyam says. “There are times when it is appropriate and other times [when] it is not appropriate. It is foolish to have your Facebook page open, doing your homework, and chatting with your friends. It’s okay when you are doing busywork or something else that doesn’t require sustained thought. I don’t think a lot of kids are being strategic about it.”
Who will teach kids that strategy is a critical question. With the increasing use of technology in schools, many educators are teaching kids how and when to use technology for their studies—a more wholesale approach to strategizing. Kids can learn the same lessons from their parents, though every child and family is different, Goodstein says. To teach our kids how and when to use media, Goodstein offers the following seven tips for parents:
Try to understand what is happening before arbitrarily demanding that teens turn it all off. Determine what’s practical, what’s distracting, and what you and your teen both think are too much. “You have to talk to your teens to understand what they are doing with technology—and why they love it,” Goodstein says.
Model good behavior. “Using your BlackBerry on a family vacation is just as frustrating for teens as them texting their friends during a family meal [is to parents],” Goodstein says.
Don’t be afraid to set limits on your teen’s use of media while they’re doing homework, driving, or are engaged in any other activity that requires focus.
Teach your teens technology etiquette. Provide guidance about when it is appropriate to text vs. talk, what to say and what not to say, and when to say it. Teach your teens to examine closely the media they consume. They should question their online information sources and should know how to recognize and manage information overload.
Be mindful of peer pressure when it comes to media use by teens. “Some teens decide to unplug as an identity statement,” Goodstein says. Ask your teen to put into his own words why he needs to balance his media use.
Encourage your teens to do more “offline,” real-world activities such as playing a sport, joining a club, spending quiet time reading, listening to live music, or other activities that don’t involve technology.
Finally, consider limiting the use of technology in teen bedrooms, particularly technology that can be used with the door closed—and all night long. “Most teens don’t get enough sleep as it is,” Goodstein says. “Having access to the Internet and being able to watch TV in their room means that they can sneak it in after lights are supposed to be out.”