Six More Reasons Why Teens & Tweens Shouldn’t “Multi-task”

In the five years since my last newsletter on this topic, we’ve learned a great deal more from neuroscientists studying the effects of so-called multi-tasking on the brain. And with that knowledge comes a multitude of compelling reasons why teens and tweens should structure their time so they focus only on their work. In his book, The Organized Mind, Daniel J. Levitin summarizes this research. You can use this information to make clearer to the young people you raise and teach that checking social media sites or watching Netflix while they study for an algebra test or write an essay has about the same effect on their learning and productivity as shooting themselves in the foot would have if they were training for a marathon.

1. Problem-solving and creativity require focus As teens and tweens progress through school, the curriculum will require increasingly higher-level, critical thinking. To do their best, in-depth problem solving, their brains need sustained thought. Multi-tasking interrupts that, undermining the kind of reasoning they need.

2. Shifting attention exhausts the brain. When teens and tweens think they’re paying attention to more than one thing at a time, they’re actually shifting their focus from task to task. This saps their energy faster than focusing on only one task. So when students get distracted, doing their homework and studying not only take longer, but also make them more tired. With the workloads most teens and tweens have today, they would be much better served by conserving their mental energy.

3. Multi-tasking misdirects information. Students who want to study most effectively need to know that multi-tasking is the exact wrong strategy. That is because shifting focus from one task to another redirects information they are trying to learn to the wrong part of the brain. This may explain why many students I see are disappointed by test grades that are lower than they expected.

4. Daydreaming is more useful than multi-tasking. Although daydreaming has gotten a bad reputation as a distractor or “waste of time,” neuroscientists say it uses up less energy than multi-focusing. Even better, and unlike multi-tasking, alternating between focusing and daydreaming restores students’ brains. Teens need to know that intermittently allowing their minds to drift can be a good thing.

5. Distractions are addictive. This is not news to teens and tweens, who admit that nearby cellphones—with their ever-hopeful sounds alerting them to new texts, posts, and likes—are almost impossible for them to resist. This is correct—and it’s not their fault. Research proves that our brains are so powerfully wired to prefer novelty that humans work as hard for “shiny new objects” as for food and mates.

6. Avoiding distractions is a necessary skill. This pull toward novelty is a formidable challenge to the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, which tries to keep us focused, attentive, and productive so we can accomplish our longer-term goals. If teens and tweens want to succeed, they need to perfect strategies to resist the nearly irresistible distractions offered by modern technology and the media.

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If these six reasons aren’t compelling enough, you might mention this remarkable fact: Just being aware of an unread email sitting in an inbox can reduce IQ by 10 points! And that applies to adults, who presumably have mature brains more capable of resisting distractions! Of course, at their stage of development, even these incontrovertible facts may not convince teens and tweens that multi-tasking is bad for them. If you’re facing that impasse, suggest that they try an experiment. For an entire week, they must agree to focus only on their work—with the proviso that they will have screen/relaxation time at some point in their evening. Give teens the chance to see for themselves the benefits of doing only one thing at a time.

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