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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?
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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? continued...

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."

If a parent is alarmed that a teen is multitasking too much, dictating change usually doesn't work, Healy says. She suggests giving a teen a news article about the hazards of multitasking and asking, "What do you think you might be able to do about this?"

"Get your child thinking about what this means to them and their learning," she says. "Let the kid make the plan. That way, they have ownership over it."

For example, teens might find that their ability to focus improves -- as well as grades in school -- if they separate homework and active distractions as much as possible. That may mean doing only homework for 45 minutes, then taking a 15-minute break to instant-message friends, make phone calls, or update a MySpace or Facebook page.

Q. My 10-year-old daughter begs for a cell phone because all of her close friends own one. Should I give her one?

A. Teens who drive may need a cell phone for safety reasons. But cell phones "are not generally recommended for preteens," says Regina Milteer, MD, a representative of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on Communications and Media. Children that young may not be responsible enough to own a cell phone.

"But to be very, very realistic," Milteer says, some preteens may need a cell phone for emergencies -- for instance, if they walk alone from school to their home or a parent's office.

If parents decide to give a child a cell phone, they'll have more control over usage if they go with a prepaid cell phone plan, in which a parent buys minutes ahead of time and replenishes as needed, Milteer says.

What if there's no compelling reason to buy a preteen a cell phone, other than peer pressure?

You can tell your child no, Milteer says. You can talk, though, about getting a phone in the future, when your child becomes more independent and may need to touch base with you about after-school plans.

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