Stopping those homework distractions

Studying without distractions is seen as a better way to grasp the information - and be able to apply it in different formats. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)

Should you worry if your kid “media multitasks” while doing his algebra homework, writing her American History paper, or otherwise studying for school? Can texting, tweeting, talking with friends on the phone or online, checking Facebook, watching TV, playing video games, listening to music (or doing several of these at once) co-exist with successful learning? Researchers – and a remarkable 11th grader from Conyers, Ga. – say “No”.  (With one possible exception – read on!)

In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey, nearly one in three 8- to 18-year-olds said they multitask most of the time while doing their homework. And 22 percent more indulge some of the time. Just 19 percent say they never do. While many kids, and some experts, say media multitasking is the new normal, research suggests otherwise – confirming my own gut feelings (and probably yours, too) about what gets lost when kids aren’t focused. Here’s what can happen:

Learning isn’t as deep. In one fascinating Columbia University study, students who focused completely on studying the information in an experimental assignment had a deeper and more flexible understanding of it. Multitaskers’ knowledge was shallower. That means both might do equally as well on a multiple-choice test, but the multitaskers might have trouble applying the information. For example, they might not be able to conjugate a Spanish verb on the spot in order to have a conversation.

The facts suffer. The coolest multitasking study I’ve found was done not by an adult researcher but by a curious 11th grader from the Rockdale Magnet School for Science and Technology in Conyers, Ga. She rounded up 91 fellow students for a 2009 science project. Divided into four groups, the study volunteers all read for five minutes – some in silence, others while listening to music, watching TV or talking on the phone. Then they were tested on what they’d read. The “silence” group, on average, got 70 percent of questions right. Students who listened to music scored slightly higher, at 72 percent. TV watchers earned a 60 percent, and those who’d talked on the phone got just 50 percent right.

Everything takes longer. When we multitask, we’re asking our brains to switch back and forth between different jobs. Researchers call this "task switching," and a growing stack of studies shows that shifting attention back and forth doesn’t happen automatically. Your neurons need a little time to re-orient themselves. Constant switching could reduce productivity by as much as 40 percent.

I asked Lori Feldman-Winter, MD, MPH, division head for Adolescent Medicine at Children's Regional Hospital at Cooper, what parents can, and should, do about media multitasking at homework time. (In a later post, Feldman-Winter will share her advice about kids using media in social situations with family and friends.)

“In general it is a good idea to learn to focus on specific tasks such as learning a subject or completing homework to achieve deeper learning,” she notes. “Multi-tasking may be possible for some children; however, having multiple distractions may also exacerbate the symptoms of AD/HD, a common problem in children and adolescents.”

Her suggestions:

Parents: Set rules. “Families need to decide what is appropriate for them,” she says. “’Family rules’ and use of authoritative parenting style is most effective at achieving these desired behaviors.” (Research shows, in fact, setting clear limits and boundaries in a firm yet warm way, and talking with your kids about it, helps kids and teens be less “consumed” by media.)  

Say OK to breaks. Feldman-Winter notes that in decades past, kids '"‘multitasked" by taking breaks from homework to play, read a book for fun or just goof off. “The difference now is the simultaneous input of media and homework,” she says. “The field needs more thorough study.”  Brain breaks to walk the dog, jump on the trampoline, get in a little skate-boarding may be just what your kid needs to refresh and finish that calculus assignment.

Any more suggestions on how to keep kids more focused on the task at hand?