Is Multitasking Helpful or Harmful?

By Pfohl, Bill | National Association of School Psychologists. Communique, May 2012 | Go to article overview

Is Multitasking Helpful or Harmful?


Pfohl, Bill, National Association of School Psychologists. Communique


A recent article on multitasking in Scientific American Mind magazine (March/April, 2012) caught my eye. David Stayer and Jason Watson review their research and that of others to say we as humans are really bad at multitasking. Their article makes the following points rather well: (a) We have the ability to facilitate or suppress input to help focus our attention but this does not happen easily if two inputs are demanded simultaneously, and (b) "frequent multitaskers tend to be more impulsive and sensation seeking, as well as overly confident in their ability to juggle mental activities" (p. 27). When I mention this latter point in my classes, students insist on how good they are at it.

Most of the current multitasking research is about using phones while driving: Hands-off and hand-held both have the same dangerous consequences. The research states clearly that we are not able to divide our attention as well as we think we can. Hennebrooke and Gay (2003) in the Journal ofComputingin Higher Education found that students who brought laptops to class and browsed materials during a lecture were significantly less able to recall information right after the lecture when asked for recall. They replicated the study with others and found the same results. With all we have to do as school psychologists and university professors, it is so tempting to try to do as many things as we can. As technology increases and our job demands increase, we are almost forced to multitask. This situation puts us in a dilemma. Why not multitask? Do we retain what we have read when watching TV? Can we text and drive? Can we browse the Internet and pay attention in class? Research would say not. Would you be happy if your doctor was checking e-mail or Facebook during your surgery or office visit? But people will talk on cell phones in lines at the bank or grocery, or while waiting for a doctor, etc. Are they efficient and paying attention? Not from my observations. The clerk or office staff must remind them what to do or to get them to do a task. So people often tell themselves that they can multitask, but in fact, they cannot do it well.

A 2009 article in Pediatrics, written by Calamaro, Mason, and Ratcliffe, found that many teens used technology in their bedrooms which delayed the onset of sleep up to 1-2 hours. We should ask questions about this when evaluating those from 6th to 12th grade.

Technology that is portable and multifunctional is relatively new. Students can text without looking at the keyboard, but what are the limits and conditions under which our learning and attention are impacted? Science will tell us, but from what I have read, we keep trying to expand what we do to more and more tasks and current evidence indicates a serious deterioration in our learning and attention ability, lifestyle management, and possibly our physical and mental health.

As more schools introduce technology into the classroom, will the teacher and student be able to interact as they have before? Likely not. We will see, hear, and be exposed to new and more diversified materials than we are in today's classrooms. What we will have to do is find the sweet spot for the best learning - more is not necessarily better. We can use technology to reinforce learning, do more complex problem solving, and expose students to materials that previously would not be possible. It is the old psychology axiom: We can remember seven bits (not bytes) of information. How technology will change this is to be determined. We can look up information quickly, so people say they do not need to remember it. I am yet to be convinced that all our "memory" will be external. I find that people using the Internet do not read; they skim. Research shows they do not stay on a webpage more than 3 seconds. They look for a specific item or piece of information. Will this lead to a different student, who may now fit the ADHD-PI criteria? We do not reinforce finishing the task or reading the whole article. …

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