Expert Article: Kids and Multitasking

February 24, 2011
Audrey Stokes

Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES In the Classroom

In this article, Dr. Patricia Greenfield and Yalda T. Uhls, from UCLA and Children’s Digital Media Center, help us make sense of some of the research being done on how multitasking affects productivity and development.

Children’s simultaneous use of different media, or media multitasking, is at an all-time high, as a recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation demonstrates.1 The primary driver of this trend is the computer with its multiple windows, but other media contribute to multitasking because they can be used simultaneously. For example, a child who uses a computer to instant message with friends while a television is on in the background or while listening to music is multitasking.

There is also social multitasking, in which, for example, you text one person while talking face-to-face to another. And it’s important to realize that we all multitask everyday. To date, it has actually been considered a valuable skill, given that in our time-strapped society, multitasking allows you to complete many different tasks at the same time.

Multitasking is here to stay; the question is, what are the benefits or costs to multitasking, and, if there are costs, how can parents mitigate them?

Early research pointing to positive effects of playing video games showed that it could promote divided attention skills, a perceptual foundation for multitasking.2 A more recent study employed a tool that measures how effectively a participant performs on four tasks carried out simultaneously. This study showed that participants who played two hours of a shooting game called Counter-Strike improved multitasking scores significantly over those in a control group who did not play the game.3

So video games promote skills in multitasking — but many parents, educators, and researchers are left asking whether multitasking is fundamentally a good thing. Recent studies have investigated whether someone performs better or processes a task more deeply if it is done alone rather than in a multitasking environment.

One of these studies used CNN Headline News to simulate a multitasking environment and a cognitive task that many of us encounter daily: simultaneously collecting information from multiple visual and aural cues.4 The experiment showed that college students recalled significantly fewer facts from four main news stories in CNN’s visually complex environment than from the same stories presented in a visually simple format, with the news anchor alone on the screen and the news crawls and other stimuli edited out.

So what happens to learning in a classroom environment that encourages media multitasking? Researchers at Cornell University studied this in a college-level communication studies class in which students were generally encouraged to use their laptops and the Internet during lectures to explore topics in greater detail. Half the students were allowed to keep their laptops open, while the other half had to close their laptops. Students with closed laptops recalled significantly more material in a surprise quiz after class than did the students with open laptops.5 Although these results may be obvious to teachers, many schools appear to be unaware of the potentially negative impact on learning produced by multitasking when they provide wireless connections to the Internet in lecture halls with the intention of improving learning.

This research indicates that multitasking — both within-medium, as with the CNN study, and multimedia, as with the classroom Internet study — decreases our ability to process and retain information. These studies show the cognitive costs of multitasking: It can distract from the main message and from socially important tasks. Multitasking can also decrease reflection on learning — or “metacognition” — as it shifts activity away from brain areas that deeply reflect on information and learning to areas that deal with more habitual processing.6 It can also cause situational Attention Deficit Disorder, which can lead to irritability, declining productivity, and disorganization.7

Additionally, there are social costs, which concern many parents today. In an intense four-year study of modern family life, anthropologist Elinor Ochs at UCLA’s Sloan Center found that multitasking contributes to decreased family interaction. Researchers in Norway found that social multitasking with a cell phone creates generational boundaries, undermines family rituals and shared communication, and magnifies the importance of peer group while decreasing the importance of family.8

So what can mitigate some the cognitive effects of multitasking — such as decreased reflection and automatic thinking? One answer is reading. Research has shown that the amount of out-of-class reading done in college years is a statistically significant predictor of critical thinking skills.9 In addition, reading promotes imagination, increases vocabulary, and encourages reflection.10

Perhaps most importantly, parents can lead by example to encourage breaks from multitasking. This may mean setting limits on media time or turning off the TV and pulling out a board game that requires concentration on a single task. But, more generally, it means slowing down the pace a bit and encouraging family time, since the positive influences of parents on a child’s development can take place only when parents spend time with their children.

If you’re interested in learning more, please take a look at Patricia Greenfield’s article in Science magazine.


Rideout, V., Foehr, U., & Roberts, D. (2010). Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation. http://kff.org/other/event/generation-m2-media-in-the-lives-of/
Greenfield, P. M., Dewinstanley, P., Kilpatrick, H., & Kaye, D. (1994). Action video games and informal education: Effects on strategies for dividing visual attention. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 15:105–123.
Kearney, P. In Proceedings of the DiGRA World Conference, 2005.
Bergen, L., Grimes, T., & Potter, D. (2005). How attention partitions itself during … Human Communication Research, 31 (3), 311-336.
Hembrooke, H., & Gay, G. (2003). The Lecture and the Laptop: Multitasking in wireless learning … Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 15(1), 46-65.
Foerde, K., Poldrack, R.A., & Knowlton, B.J. (2007). Secondary task effects on classification learning. Memory & Cognition, 35, 864-74.
Hallowell, E. M. (2005). Delivered from distraction: Getting the most out of life with attention deficit disorder. New York: Ballantine Books.
Ling, R. and Yttri, B. (2005). Control, emancipation and status: The mobile telephone in the teen’s parental and peer group control relationships. In R. Kraut, M. Brynin, & S. Kiesler (Eds.) Information technology at home. Oxford: Oxford.
Terenzini, P. T., Springer, L., Pascarella, E. T., & Nora, A. (1995). Influences affecting the development of students’ critical thinking skills. Research in Higher Education, 36, 23-39.
Kagan, J. (1965). Reflection-impulsivity and reading ability in primary grade children. Child Development, 36, 609-628.

By Common Sense Media
January 21, 2010