Kids Don't Multitask As Well As They'd Like You To Think

from the ooh,-look,-something-shiny... dept

Over the past few years, there have been plenty of stories about the rise of multitasking, especially among the younger generation. The general consensus is that having grown up with multitasking, they’re just better at it. However, in a NY Times article that suggests people really don’t handle multitasking very well, the author points to research suggesting that while kids may multitask more often, it doesn’t mean they’re very good at it. If anything, it just tends to show that they’re not very good at ignoring distractions. Of course, as with many of these discussions the definition of multitasking can be quite tricky. We were just talking about the evolutionary benefits of continuous partial attention, that allowed a brain to work on more challenging problems while it was overtly working on less interesting issues. But is that really multitasking? At the same time, some people blame multitasking for not being able to keep the attention of people who they want to listen to them — but again, that’s a different issue. Perhaps part of the problem is that multitasking has multiple definitions to multiple people, and that makes it that much more difficult to recognize when it’s a problem and when it’s beneficial.

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Comments on “Kids Don't Multitask As Well As They'd Like You To Think”

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dorpus says:

Back in the 80s

Walkmans were blamed for shortening attention spans, as was sugar. Technology was giving birth to a monstrous new generation of self-absorbed youth who care only about suntans, credit cards, and car phones. In the 90s, “Generation X” was a monstrous new generation of youth who get body piercings, date interracially, and were content to flip hamburgers for the rest of their lives in “McJobs”.

Back in the early 1930s, bestseller books described a monstrous new generation of youth raised by the flapper generation of the 1920s, who were lackadaisical, anemic, lacking manliness, and incapable of defending a country for war.

Martin Bilski says:

I don’t think the original post was meant to be a value judgement.

Tolerance and humility are all good qualities, but still we should be able to distinguish between what’s *practical* and what’s impractical. After all, those kids do have their own values that may be different from our own, their own goals we fail to understand, but — like us — they want to be happy, able to realize their goals and to succeed at what they deem is important.

Is multitasking helping them? Is it making them more effective at what they want to do? Are they more able to rest among changing circumstances of the more and more complex world today *or* are they becoming more and more confused? They have their goals – they want to succeed – they need focus and patience. Focus and patience it’s not something that just comes with age; my experience at least is that it’s something that has to be learned. (Perhaps I’m stupid or something 🙂

After having learned that, one can stay focused among chaos and confusion and perhaps chaos and confusion *are* the ways to learn it. But it’s also possible that you have to learn to crawl before you walk and walk before you run.

Just a few chaotic thoughts… 😉

Ajax 4Hire (profile) says:

Multitasking can also get you killed...

sometimes being able to focus on a single task to the exclusion of all other distractions can be very valuable.

Driving a car, hammering a nail, answering your boss can be very hazardous to you health and well being if you do not focus on that single event.

Reward goes to those who can focus to exclusion of everything else, the NASCAR driver, the homerun king, the spelling bee champion, the perfect SAT score were all done with intense purpose, no distractions, no switching tasks.

Running for your life from a beast in the wild whether it is a lion or “da Lions of 143rd street”, you do not want to stop and say coo-man a new X-box.

Being able to Multitasking is another word for being easily distracted.

Anonymous Coward says:


In response to the article, I think multitasking is becoming more the norm but I don’t think it’s fair to generalize and say “Kids of today multitask better then adults did.”
I consider myself to still be fairly young (24) but I work in the IT business and its quiet chaotic; there are always a dozen things that require attention ASAP.
I grew up playing RTS (Real-Time Strategy) where multitasking is a requirement and I firmly believe that this directly aided in my ability to keep pace with the dynamic work environment I’m in today.
I have noticed that there are many people that appear to be better at handling multiple issues simultaneously and, at the risk of generalizing; I have also noticed that most people that devote a large portion of their time to RTS games tend to be among the best of them. This may be more an effect then a cause (maybe people that are good at multitasking are drawn to RTS more then those who are not) but there is definitely a link there.
I am certain I would not have the resource allocation and controlled sense of urgency skills I have today were it not for all those hours playing StarCraft and Command & Conquer growing up.

I don’t think this an age-related skill though. I know many older adults that are just as good, or better, at RTS and multitasking then I am. I think it’s just more prevalent to find gamers among young people.

In response to Ajax – that is ridiculous! Yes, being able to focus is very important, but how often do you need to run for your life in today’s world? Talk to the boss, sure. But I demonstrate to my boss everyday that I can be talking to him (and communicate effectively with comprehension) while helping a user on Instant Messenger and editing open tickets in our tracker software. THESE are the things I need to do everyday to ensure my wellbeing.

Nasty Old Geezer says:

Re: Multi-what?

There may be a correlation between RTS gaming and the ability to handle several tasks, but I would speculate that it is the reverse of your statement — people who are wired to run multiple tasks excel at and enjoy RTS games. People who are more linearly focused (or just don’t like RTS games) avoid playing them.

Correlation is not causality.

In addition, I would distinguish between multiple sub-tasks within an over all task (competing in a NASCAR race is an overall task, steering, brakes, pit communications, etc. are all related sub-tasks) and unrelated tasks — 1) meeting with yur boss about objectives and 2) thumbing IM on your Blackberry under the table.

Just Me says:

Re: Re: Multi-what?

“I would distinguish between multiple sub-tasks within an over all task (competing in a NASCAR race is an overall task, steering, brakes, pit communications, etc. are all related sub-tasks) and unrelated tasks…”

Does it matter? We doferentiate tasks as “unrelated” or “sub-tasks” but in the end you’re still talking about a single brain working on multiple trains of thought (or ‘threads’). A processor in a computer can differentiate between a new process and a thread, but can your brain?
If I’m driving a car, and operating the brakes, that’s two tasks. Is that any different (to my brain) as operating my brakes and smoking a cigarette?

Just Me says:

“Reward goes to those who can focus to exclusion of everything else, the NASCAR driver, the homerun king, the spelling bee champion, the perfect SAT score were all done with intense purpose, no distractions, no switching tasks.”

um…so you mean to tell me that the Nascar driver isn’t doing multiple things at once? I think they might disagree. They need to watch where their going, controll the vehichles speed and direction and keep track of every car in their immediate vicinity. I think you just Proved multitasking is vital to Nascar drivers.


Silly Ajax.

Anonymous Coward says:

We must achieve balance if we are to accomplish anything. Doing too many things at once can be detrimental because we don’t focus on any one thing and accomplish anything significant. On the other hand, focusing on one thing and only one thing is also unhealthy. You can’t tell me the NASCAR champion doesn’t go out and play some video games, watch a few movies, go out with friends, etc. in his spare time. We need entertainment to relieve us of the pressure of daily life.

Multitasking can be good, and it can also be bad, just like everything else in this world. It just all depends on how it is used.

|333173|3|_||3 says:

People need to make a disticntion between being distracted and multitasking. Multitasking is when you do several things simultaneously, not when you are ostensivbly doing one hting, but are in fact doing another (like “typing a report” when you are playing spider and posting on TD). The example about talking to your boss and working are examples of multitasking.
The difference between texting under teh table and racing in F1, NASCAR, V8Supercar, rallying, whatever, is that in the former you are not really paying attention to yor boss, since the thought processes involved in composing an intelligent message are connected to the same parts of the brain used to compose sentences to say, which is why your texting speed slows down when you talk. Richard Feynamnn did an experiment where he found tat no-one coudl count out one minute while reading aloud. Some people could count out a minute while speaking, others could count out a minute while reading, but none could do boht, because some people counted by seeing numbers incrementing, while others did it by speaking silently to themselves, which tied up the vision or speech centres of the brain.

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