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Over-Technology, Over-Tasked

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Wednesday, November 10th, 2010 | CWK Producer

“Well, I’m writing an essay about the American and French revolutions, and I’m checking my e-mail and my Myspace [account] at the same time – and listening to my music.”

– Luke, 15 years old

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An Associated Press/MTV poll of college students finds that being connected by technology 24/7 comes at a cost. While 57 percent of students surveyed said life would be more stressful without computers and cell phones, 25 percent said living without it would be a relief.

When it comes to multi-tasking, how much do students remember from their studies when they’re also texting, checking emails and listening to their ipod? For some — not a whole lot.

For teenagers, there’s a lot going on after school: e-mails, texting, blogs, television, iPods and talking on the phone…all while they’re trying to do their homework. The question is: does multi-tasking really work, or are teens fooling themselves?

Some kids apparently can’t just sit down and focus on their homework at the exclusion of everything else.

“Well, I’m writing an essay about the American and French revolutions,” says 15-year-old Luke while sitting at his computer, “and I’m checking my e-mail and my Myspace [account] at the same time – and listening to my music.”

And while some kids, like Luke, say they can handle all these things at once, experts disagree.

“Studies have shown that, when the children are watching TV while doing their homework, and they pick up their heads to watch a part of the program, they lose their focus on their homework and they start paying more attention to the television set,” says Bonnie Cohen-Greenberg, who works with students with learning disabilities. And, she says, losing focus means kids won’t remember what they’ve studied.

“Well, the problem is, if you’re not really paying attention to something, you’re not really learning it,” she says. “So it’s not going to stay in your long-term memory. Many times, children can describe what they see on TV while they’re doing their homework much easier than they can describe the type of homework assignment they had – because the TV show is a lot more engaging to them.”

In fact, many kids get so absorbed in e-mails, texting, the Internet, and video games, they end up procrastinating on their schoolwork.

That’s often the case for 16-year-old Myles.

“I think, well, I’m going to do it later, after I get off the computer,” he admits, “but after I’m done with everything I’m so tired. So I end up going to sleep and I forget my homework. So I have to rush and do it in the morning, before class starts.”

Experts say that even young children should develop study habits that focus their attention. Set a goal, complete it and take a break. Why? Because schoolwork is their most important job.

“Realize that homework is a priority,” says Cohen-Greenberg, “and when they are doing their homework, to only do their homework. They can certainly have breaks. And when they have breaks, take a quick break – relax, do something fun – and then get right back to it.”

What We Need To Know

Many people, both teens and adults, think that multitasking is the best way to accomplish a lot in a small amount of time. But scientific evidence says this isn’t true. Research conducted by David E. Meyer, director of the Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan, found that when people try to perform two or more related tasks, either at the same time or quickly switching back and forth between them, they do a worse job on both of them. Multitasking causes a kind of brownout in the brain — there just isn’t enough power to go around.

Meyer says it can take up to 400 percent longer to do a homework assignment if you’re trying to do something else, like texting at the same time. The brain cannot process two different complex things at the same time. What your brain does instead is prioritize tasks. So if you’re listening to music and reading a book, your brain will concentrate on the music, and when that’s finished, it will focus on taking in the information from the book. The result is that neither task is done efficiently.

WikiHow offers these tips to help control multitasking:

  • Set up separate to-do lists for different tasks. Help your student create a to-do list to organize assignments and responsibilities by class and extracurricular activity.
  • Identify the most important tasks (such as a paper that is due tomorrow) and work on that most important task first. Don’t do anything else until this is done.
  • Turn off all other distractions. Shut off e-mail, the Internet if possible, turn off the TV, your iPod and your cell phone. Focus on that one task, and try to get it done without worrying about other stuff.
  • If you feel the urge to check your email or switch to another task, stop yourself. Breathe deeply. Re-focus yourself. Get back to the task at hand.
  • Take deep breaths, stretch, and take breaks now and then. Enjoy life. Go outside, and appreciate nature. Keep yourself sane.

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