The Myth of Multitasking: Media, Teens, and Homework

Our society values productivity above almost everything else. We place such a high priority on our ability to work toward multiple deadlines and simultaneously juggle a variety of projects we’ve reached the point where it’s virtually a cultural fetish. A fetish we call multitasking. There’s a popular belief that multitasking is a good thing. Which makes sense: if you can do two or more things at once, then you’re twice and productive. Three things at once and you’re three times as productive. The more the merrier. The bigger the better. An hour of work yields two, three, and maybe four times the results – if you’re a skilled and experienced multitasker.

At work, multitasking keeps your bosses happy, impresses your colleagues, and makes you feel like you’re crushing your job and proving you’re an invaluable member of your team. At home, you do your household duties, watch television, talk on the phone, help kids with homework, all at the same time – if you’re a skilled and experienced multitasker. The kudos you get from the family are similar to those you get at work: you get things done, keep your family happy, and feel like a domestic superhero.

But here’s a question: are you really multitasking?

And here’s another, with regards to your teenage children, whose opportunities to multitask take on a uniquely modern flavor, because they often occur while they’re doing homework on their computer. Is your enthusiastic multitasking setting a good example for them?

Let’s take a close look at these two questions.

Multitasking: Is it Real?

 It seems like a simple question on the surface. Can we really multitask? Is it possible to truly do two things at once? Experience tells us the answer is yes, but experience also tells us the answer is no. This contradiction resolves when we dig deeper and identify what kind of tasks we’re talking about: everyone knows it’s possible to walk and chew gum at the same time. Everyone knows it’s possible to listen to a podcast while cooking dinner. And of course it’s possible to listen to music while doing anything at all. With some exceptions, most of us agree that having music on in the background makes the primary task easier, not harder.

And there’s the rub: during the above examples, are you actually doing two things at once? That’s when the contradiction compounds, rather than resolves. Passive listening is not the same thing as actively doing. Experience tells us you can listen to the news in the other room while you’re making dinner, but you can’t chop garlic and baste a chicken at the same time. Experience tells us you can listen to music while you’re reading, but you can’t play a challenging piece of music on the piano while you’re reading.

Research tells us that multitasking – meaning actually doing more than one or more activities at the same time that take a significant amount of attention – is not a real thing. Instead we do is called task-switching, which is exactly what it sounds like: we don’t do two things at once, we switch between various tasks. Sometimes we do it rapidly and sometimes we may switch between three or four tasks in the space of an hour. Research also tells us that task-switching comes at a cost. When we constantly task switch, three unwanted things happen:

  1. We lose time, and therefore, productivity.
  2. We impair our ability to encode information into memory.
  3. We impair our ability to retrieve the information we did manage to encode into memory.

Which brings us to the second question: we champion – okay we tend to brag – about how good we are at multitasking. But when our kids follow our lead and multitask while they’re on one of their devices, supposedly doing homework, are we setting a good example?

Task-Switching During Homework Time

 In 2015, Common Sense Media released a comprehensive report on teen media use that addressed multitasking/task switching while doing homework. Here’s what they found:

While doing homework…

  • 34% of tweens (age 8-12) often watch TV.
  • 51% of teens (age 13-18) often watch TV.
  • 12% of tweens often use social media.
  • 50% of teens often use social media.
  • 35% of tweens often listen to music.
  • 76% of teens often listen to music.
  • 12% of tweens often send text messages.
  • 60% of teens often send text messages.

Common Sense Media took a second step in their survey of tween and teen media use: next, they asked teens and tweens if they thought multi-tasking during homework time helped, hurt, or made no difference at all during homework time. As a parent reading this, you can probably predict how they answered that next set of questions. Before we get to their answers, however, we’ll look at some valid data on how task-switching/multitasking affects academic performance.

The article Multitasking: Switching Costs, published on the American Psychological Association website, gives a succinct summary of the relationship between task-switching, efficiency, and performance:

“Although switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of seconds per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between several tasks. Thus, multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time and in the end involve more error…even brief mental blocks created by switching between tasks can cost as much as 40% of someone’s productive time.”

This insight takes on more relevance when we consider another set of data reported in the Common Sense Media survey:

  • A study of 262 middle, high school, and college students showed media multitaskers spend only six consecutive minutes on schoolwork before switching to texting or social media.
  • College students who do not multitask on laptops during lectures perform better on tests than students who do.
  • A study of 263 college students determined that multitaskers have difficulty discerning between relevant and irrelevant information.

That’s what the data from peer-reviewed, scientific journal articles has to say – complete with control groups, statistical analysis, and rigorous experimental methods. Now, here’s how teens answer questions on the effects of media multitasking/task-switching during their homework time:

About watching tv….

  • 10% of tweens say it helps, 30% say it hurts, and 60% say it makes no difference.
  • 17% of teens say it helps, 19% say it hurts, and 63% say it makes no difference.

About using social media…

  • 13% of tweens say it helps, 31% say it hurts, and 56% say it makes no difference.
  • 14% of teens say it helps, 31% say it hurts, and 55% say it makes no difference.

About listening to music…

  • 40% of tweens say it helps, 7% say it hurts, and 56% say it makes no difference.
  • 50% of teens say it helps, 6% say it hurts, and 44% say it makes no difference.

About sending text messages…

  • 19% of tweens say it helps, 21% say it hurts, and 60% say it makes no difference.
  • 12% of teens say it helps, 24% say it hurts, and 64% say it makes no difference.

Given that most adults understand tweens and teens often believe things despite all evidence to the contrary, it’s no surprise that only small percentages of them believe that multitasking/task-switching affect the quality of their work. We’ll be generous and allow that music probably helps, and maybe – just maybe – a tv playing in the background might have a similar soothing, stress-relieving effect. But with regards to switching tasks to social media or texting, we need to follow the scientific data, which indicates that media multitasking has a detrimental effect on quality of work, ability to create and retrieve memories, and test performance.

Putting it All Together

An article in Psychology Today identifies one possible exception to the multitasking data: when you’re performing a motor task that you’ve mastered and do all the time, such as walking, you can do something else, too, such as talking. But they also point out another study that showed people who talk on their cellphones while walking tended to run into people and miss things going on around them – many even missed a clown riding by on a unicycle.

Here’s our takeaway from all this: with a few categorical exceptions, such as listening to music or a podcast in the background while performing a primary task that requires attention, the very idea we’re capable of multitasking is a myth. What we actually do is switch rapidly back and forth between tasks, and the time and energy it takes to reset, reboot, and resume one task after another has a cumulative, detrimental effect on both performance and efficiency. For parents helping teens manage their homework time, whether they’re on a computer, a tablet, or sitting at the kitchen table with a book, paper, and pencil, we suggest the following approach:

  1. Say yes to music.
    1. Short dance breaks probably help (but we have zero data on this).
  2. Say maybe to background tv.
    1. Experiment with this: check their work one day after they do their work with the tv off, then one day with the tv on, and see if there’s a difference.
  3. Say no to social media and texting.
    1. This one is a no-brainer: the data says it’s no good for study time.

We also suggest you try following an adult version of these rules yourself, and see if you notice any differences in how you perform your tasks. This can be your double-bonus: you may improve your own productivity, and at the same time, you’ll model the behavior you’d like your children to emulate – because all parents know their kids are far more likely to do what they do rather than what they say.