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Back to School in a Wired World

Are electronic gadgets turning kids into multitasking pros, or are they just dragging them down?
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

It's no secret that today's children are growing up in a brave new world of computers, cell phones, video games, and iPods. This year, kids will head back to school with more gadgets than ever before.

"Young people today live media-saturated lives, spending an average of nearly 6 1/2 hours a day with media," according to a 2005 Kaiser Family Foundation study, "Generation M: Media In the Lives of 8- to18-Year-Olds."

And that's not all. Gone are the days when a youngster sat too close to the TV, lost in a favorite show. Nowadays, multiple gadgets may compete for a child's scattered attention.

"Kids are instant-messaging while they're watching MTV and taking cell phone calls and playing a computer game with somebody in Japan," says Kathleen Clarke-Pearson, MD, a pediatrician and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on Communications and Media.

"This is a complete experiment in the history of childhood and in the history of the human brain," says Jane M. Healy, PhD, an educational psychologist and author of Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds -- and What We Can Do About It.

Not sure how to help your children cope with all of the distractions and dilemmas that the new technology brings? Here's some expert advice.

Q.My teenager does homework, listens to an iPod, and sends instant messages on the computer -- all at the same time. Could this multitasking hinder learning?

A. Yes, says Russell Poldrack, PhD, a University of California, Los Angeles, associate professor of psychology. "When the goal is learning, it's important to focus," he says. "Learning and memory are pretty badly reduced when you're multitasking."

In one of Poldrack's studies, 14 adults (average age 26) had to learn a new task while simultaneously listening to a series of beeps and counting only the high tones. Poldrack discovered that this type of active multitasking impaired the subjects' ability to learn.

In real life, a teen is engaged in active multitasking if he or she sends text messages or talks on a cell phone while reading a textbook.

What's the result? "You sacrifice ability to focus and general performance," Poldrack says. "One of the most fundamental and widespread findings in psychology is that whenever you have to switch back and forth between doing things, you're not as good at them as if you had focused on them. The brain has some pretty fundamental limits in terms of its ability to do multiple things at once."

Compared to active multitasking, does listening to music while studying create the same type of distraction? That's less clear, Poldrack says. "Our work doesn't really show that that passive kind of background noise is necessarily a bad thing. We haven't looked at it."

It depends on the student, Healy says. "With music in the background, you still may be able to focus. Some kids can and some can't."

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