Back to School in a Wired World

Are electronic gadgets turning kids into multitasking pros, or are they just dragging them down?

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on August 16, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

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."

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.

Q. My daughter in middle school is addicted to text-messaging friends on her cell phone. Why does she need such constant connection?

A. It's normal adolescent behavior, Healy says. "Peer relationships are just primary for many kids that age, particularly girls. If everyone else is doing it, the most horrible thing in the world is to feel that you're being left out of the conversation."

But out-of-control text-messaging isn't the answer, Milteer says. "You have to be patient and understanding. But at the same time, limits have to be set."

Some old-fashioned ways still work wonders, she adds. "If they feel like they need to have company and be included, invite a couple of friends over."

Another problem area: text-messaging long after parents have gone to bed. "Kids don't talk on land lines anymore," Milteer says. "If my daughter were using the phone in her room, I could hear her talking to someone. But if she's text-messaging, I would never know."

Don't let too much text-messaging cut into a child's precious sleep time, Milteer says. She recommends that parents take a child's cell phone and store it away for the night.

Q. My 8-year-old son loves video games -- so much that he plays up to three hours each day. Should I limit video games by turning them into a reward only for good behavior?

A. "That's a bad idea," Milteer says. "We're reinforcing behavior that's not always healthy."

"I would offer them activities other than extra TV time," she says. Better rewards -- for example, a simple park outing or a brand new pair of skates -- would encourage physical activity.

In fact, parents should enforce rules to keep kids from playing video games for three hours a day, experts say. According to Milteer, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that those ages 2-18 should engage in no more than two hours per day of "screen time," which includes TV, computer or video games, even watching movies or playing games on a cell phone.

Children under age 2 should have no screen time at all, such as TV viewing, Milteer adds.

Reading, doing large-piece puzzles, and playing with other toddlers are better choices for development and social skills, she says.

To help limit time spent on electronic games, don't put a TV or computer in a child's room, Milteer says. Instead, "Put them in a kitchen or a family room where the parents can monitor computer or game activity."

Q. My son spends most of his free time online, playing games, downloading music, instant-messaging, and surfing web sites. When does this activity cross the line into being unhealthy?

A. Falling grades, loss of friends, sleep disturbance -- any of these signs can point to "too much electronic stimulation," Healy says.

Try to monitor your child's Internet use, she suggests. If you're worried that his or her computer habits are seriously disrupting academic, home, or social life, consider seeking help from teachers or psychological professionals, Healy adds. "It's worth talking to a counselor about it. This is not a trivial matter."

Show Sources

SOURCES: Jane M. Healy, PhD, educational psychologist. Russell Poldrack, PhD, associate professor of psychology, UCLA. Regina Milteer, MD, American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on Communications and Media. Kathleen Clarke-Pearson, MD, American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on Communications and Media. Foerde, K, et al. PNAS, Aug. 1, 2006; vol 103: pp 11778-83. The Kaiser Family Foundation: "Generation M: Media In the Lives of 8-18-Year-Olds."

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