Some teens doing homework while listening to music and juggling tweets and texts may actually work better that way, according to an intriguing new study performed by two high-school seniors.
The Portland, Ore., students were invited to the annual conference of the American Academy of Pediatrics in San Diego this past weekend to present a summary of their research, which analyzed more than 400 adolescents. The findings: Though most teens perform better when focusing on a single task, those who are “high media multitaskers”—about 15% of the study participants—performed better when working with the distractions of email and music than when focusing on a single activity.
The results are a surprise. Previous research generally has found that people who think they are competent multitaskers actually perform worse than others who try to focus on one thing at a time. But the latest study looked only at teens and is one of the few multitasking-research projects focused on this age group. The student researchers suggest this may explain the different outcomes.
‘What our research is suggesting is that maybe our brains as adolescents and digital natives have adapted to this media influence.’
“We really wanted to see how media multitasking is affecting young people,” said Sarayu Caulfield, 17 years old, as she stood beside the poster presentation of the study at the AAP conference.
“What our research is suggesting is that maybe our brains as adolescents and digital natives have adapted to this media influence and because we’ve grown up with it we’re able to cope with all these different stimuli,” said 18-year-old Alexandra Ulmer.
Ms. Caulfield and Ms. Ulmer, who say they aren’t heavy multitaskers themselves, conducted the study as part of the Oregon Episcopal School’s science-research program. The project, which took two years to complete, placed second in the behavioral-science category at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in May in Los Angeles, the world’s largest precollege science competition. The teens over the summer presented their research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Washington, D.C., part of the National Institutes of Health.
Nora Volkow, director of NIDA, said she was impressed with the teenagers’ research. “This study explored whether experience with multitasking affected behaviors controlled by the prefrontal cortex, an area involved in self-control,” she said. “As more studies of the kind that Alexandra and Sarayu carried out so successfully become published, and as more young people become exposed to these new cognitive modalities, we may find that multitasking is not necessarily always bad,” she said.
In the study, participants were classified as high, medium or low media multitaskers, using a standardized test developed by researchers at Stanford University. Those rated at the high level reported spending an average of three hours a day multitasking, including at least 50% of the time they were doing homework. Students at the low level spent 20 minutes a day multitasking on average, and barely at all while doing homework.
Of the 403 total participants, 60 were classified in the high group, 50 in the low group and the rest were moderate media multitaskers.
The students, whose average age was 14½, were randomly sent into one of two rooms where they did a variety of cognitive tests on a computer to make use of their working, or short-term, memory. In one room, called the multitasking room, students were required to do the tests while listening to music. They were told they could do whatever they wanted on their phone or computer and to expect one or more emails, which they should respond to as quickly as possible. Not everyone actually received an email.
The students in the nonmultitasking room did the same computer tests but without any distractions.
“What we found is on average most people perform better when focusing on one single task,” said Ms. Ulmer. “But this one group of people—the high media multitaskers—performed best when they are in a multitasking environment. The high media multitaskers actually excelled in the multitasking room.”
Another finding: Participants in the multitasking room who didn’t receive an email, after being told to expect one, performed worse. “It was the anticipation of receiving an email that was more detrimental to their performance than actually receiving the email,” said Ms. Ulmer.
The tests used in the study involved simple tasks such as identifying whether a particular colored rectangle had moved when scenes on a computer screen were changed. It isn’t clear if the findings would pertain to more demanding situations, such as multitasking while doing calculus homework.
Ms. Ulmer and Ms. Caulfield said they have begun seeking a scientific journal interested in publishing their study. They said they would like to continue doing scientific research when they enter college.
The teens received guidance on their research from Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford and a leading researcher on multitasking, who died while the project was under way. The teens were then aided by Donald Roberts, a professor emeritus in communications at Stanford and an authority on media and youth.
Dr. Nass and colleagues had conducted an earlier study with 100 college-age students. It found heavy media multitaskers were less effective than people doing one task at a time in such functions as controlling memory, switching between activities and paying attention. The study was published in 2009 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Heavy media multitaskers’ ability to focus on relevant information and not be captured by the irrelevant was worse,” said Anthony Wagner, a psychology and neuroscience professor at Stanford and a co-author of the 2009 study. Dr. Wagner said the study and subsequent work by other researchers haven’t been able to answer the question whether the act of heavy media multitasking affects attention and impairs a person’s ability to filter out distractions, or whether the people themselves are naturally that way.
Other research has considered whether media multitasking can change the brain’s structure. In a study published in September in the online journal PLOS One, researchers from the University of Sussex in England found people who juggle multiple media devices have a lower density of gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain involved in cognitive and emotional processing, compared with people who use one media device at a time. The study, which took brain scans of 75 adults, didn’t prove multitasking was responsible for the differences in brain structure, the study said.
Some research has indicated there may be a genetic component to people who multitask well.
A 2010 study, conducted at the University of Utah, found there may be a category of people the researchers labeled “supertaskers” who perform extremely well at multitasking. The study tested 200 participants in a driving simulator and tested them again while also subjecting them to a demanding audio test that included math problems and other challenges. Most participants showed a significant decline in driving performance when the audio test was added. But for 2.5% of the people—the supertaskers—there was no change.
Write to Sumathi Reddy at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Once a week, members of a Wellington, New Zealand, book club arrive at a cafe, grab a drink and shut off their cellphones. Then they sink into cozy chairs and read in silence for an hour.
The point of the club isn’t to talk about literature, but to get away from pinging electronic devices and read, uninterrupted. The group calls itself the Slow Reading Club, and it is at the forefront of a movement populated by frazzled book lovers who miss old-school reading.
Slow reading advocates seek a return to the focused reading habits of years gone by, before Google, smartphones and social media started fracturing our time and attention spans. Many of its advocates say they embraced the concept after realizing they couldn’t make it through a book anymore.
[See WSJ website here for interactive “Test How Fast You Read.” http://online.wsj.com/articles/read-slowly-to-benefit-your-brain-and-cut-stress-1410823086 ]:
“I wasn’t reading fiction the way I used to,” said Meg Williams, a 31-year-old marketing manager for an annual arts festival who started the club. “I was really sad I’d lost the thing I used to really, really enjoy.”
Slow readers list numerous benefits to a regular reading habit, saying it improves their ability to concentrate, reduces stress levels and deepens their ability to think, listen and empathize. The movement echoes a resurgence in other old-fashioned, time-consuming pursuits that offset the ever-faster pace of life, such as cooking the “slow-food” way or knitting by hand.
The benefits of reading from an early age through late adulthood have been documented by researchers. A study of 300 elderly people published by the journal Neurology last year showed that regular engagement in mentally challenging activities, including reading, slowed rates of memory loss in participants’ later years.
A study published last year in Science showed that reading literary fiction helps people understand others’ mental states and beliefs, a crucial skill in building relationships. A piece of research published in Developmental Psychology in 1997 showed first-grade reading ability was closely linked to 11th grade academic achievements.
Yet reading habits have declined in recent years. In a survey this year, about 76% of Americans 18 and older said they read at least one book in the past year, down from 79% in 2011, according to the Pew Research Center.
Attempts to revive reading are cropping up in many places. Groups in Seattle, Brooklyn, Boston and Minneapolis have hosted so-called silent reading parties, with comfortable chairs, wine and classical music.
Diana La Counte of Orange County, Calif., set up what she called a virtual slow-reading group a few years ago, with members discussing the group’s book selection online, mostly on Facebook. “When I realized I read Twitter more than a book, I knew it was time for action,” she says.
Screens have changed our reading patterns from the linear, left-to-right sequence of years past to a wild skimming and skipping pattern as we hunt for important words and information.
[See WSJ website here for video interview. http://online.wsj.com/articles/read-slowly-to-benefit-your-brain-and-cut-stress-1410823086 ]: More academics and writers are advocating a return to absorbing, uninterrupted reading—slow reading, as they call it. WSJ’s Jeanne Whalen discusses with Tanya Rivero. Photo: Getty
One 2006 study of the eye movements of 232 people looking at Web pages found they read in an “F” pattern, scanning all the way across the top line of text but only halfway across the next few lines, eventually sliding their eyes down the left side of the page in a vertical movement toward the bottom.
None of this is good for our ability to comprehend deeply, scientists say. Reading text punctuated with links leads to weaker comprehension than reading plain text, several studies have shown. A 2007 study involving 100 people found that a multimedia presentation mixing words, sounds and moving pictures resulted in lower comprehension than reading plain text did.
Slow reading means a return to a continuous, linear pattern, in a quiet environment free of distractions. Advocates recommend setting aside at least 30 to 45 minutes in a comfortable chair far from cellphones and computers. Some suggest scheduling time like an exercise session. Many recommend taking occasional notes to deepen engagement with the text.
Some hard-core proponents say printed books are best, in part because they’re more visible around the house and serve as a reminder to read. But most slow readers say e-readers and tablets are just fine, particularly if they’re disconnected from the Internet.
Abeer Hoque, who has attended a few of the silent reading parties in Brooklyn, N.Y., said she plans to read a book on her phone next time, but turn it to airplane mode to stop new emails and social-media notifications from distracting her.
When Ms. Williams, who majored in literature in college, convened her first slow reading club in Wellington, she handed out tips for productive reading and notebooks for jotting down favorite words and passages. Each time they meet, the group gathers for a few minutes to slowly breathe in and out to clear their minds before cracking open their books, as in yoga.
Roughly 20 to 30 readers have shown up for Sunday evening sessions, Ms. Williams says. Most new members fill out a brief survey on their experience with many describing it as calm, peaceful and meditative, she says.
Corrections & Amplifications
An earlier version of this article neglected to give the first name of Meg Williams. (Sept. 15, 2014)
Write to Jeanne Whalen at email@example.com
These are Twitter and Facebook messages recently “scrubbed” from Trayvon Martin witness-for-the-prosecution Rachel Jeantel’s accounts:
“16months later wowww I need a drink” . . . “Wat will happen I mix everything uhmmmm” . . . “Jus got home n hear wat was going and I’m angry” . . . “remember who cause the funeral to happen keep it 100% Mr. ass hoe” . . . “damn they p*ssed me off… and I’m sick too “HELL NAW” . . . “In church wit friends n im jus think bout last year sunday wow I should have been in church the whole day and night omg made lord be with me” . . . “they black ass laugh bout last year…they ass goin to hell for laugh bout that shit” . . . “Lol we going to hell for smoke on Sunday I need some more drink” . . . “I hope I dnt hit no one tonight lord plz watch my driving” . . . Omg people calling n praying n shit lol I need a drink smoke and a pray my head killing me right now cannot wait when this day end” . . . Shit always happen when u doin Gud wit life .last year I had to deal wit people dyin n I’m tired of all those shits makin me not think right” . . . I do not know if I want to be a homicide detective u got to tell the family they love one died n shit they crying n shit oh lord I dnt kno” . . . “3.get ready for count” . . . “4.deal with the bull come with it” . . . “7.I’m going need a lot of drinks for dis summer oh lord” . . . “ Plz plz lord dnt make me start next week” . . . “ 16 months later wowww I need a drink” . . . “ CNN and HLN is killing me bro” . . . “ Court nails” . . . “ Last drink for the week long ass week too” . . . “ studied criminal justice at Miami University” . . . “My mama n daddy do all the work I just spend it” . . .
This is an update including the rather embarrasing, there’s a “jackass on my ass.” http://www.thesmokinggun.com/documents/crime/zimmerman-witness-gets-twitter-scrub-748092 .
Perhaps, Jeantel should read “Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language.'” Or, maybe she should refer to the life and writings of a true master, African-American woman writer, in fact, the first African-American woman writer, Phillis Wheatley. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phillis_Wheatley]
Wheatley lifted herself out of appalling conditions, with much less going for her than Jeantel (who we can assume from the above that she attended Miami University at her parents’ expense). Wheatley wasn’t distracted by technology such as social media, in all fairness.
If there’s a valid excuse for Jeantel’s social-media language, which found its way into her very-public service as a witness under oath and now calls her integrity into question, regardless of whether it’s socially acceptable on Twitter or Facebook to write like that, I’d like to hear it.
It has nothing to do with race. It has to do with lack of education, in my view, not just on her part, but on the part of anyone who writes similar tweets and posts. I, personally, have seen similar language on Facebook from some of my nieces and nephews, and it disheartens me as their uncle, but also as a university graduate with a degree in English.
I was once as young as Jeantel, my nieces and nephews, as we all were, and perhaps a credit can be given for “reckless youth.” I failed at my first attempt with college studies, largely due to my “party mentality” back in the late seventies, but I soared in my second attempt (the cost of which then came out of my own pocket). Perhaps also at play, there’s a lack of willpower in being able to resist pressure from peers and from the temptations of ever-changing technology. Willpower is something Phillis Wheatley surely knew about, and it had to come from somewhere.
Orwell said that the English language is degenerating due to the creation and retention of words useless toward the all-important goal of speaking and writing: clarity of meaning. Much of what is found on Twitter and Facebook can be, as Orwell would suggest, tossed into the “dustbin.” Clarity of meaning in one’s writing and speaking takes education, but also the willpower of habit formulation. Was he right?
[Please note that I clarified my position on the above due to the kind comments of a reader. It’s certainly a “touchy” subject and deserves clarity of meaning, which I think Orwell and Wheatley would both agree is always a struggle worth pursuing.]
Please also see:
A Spoonful Of Effort Helps Competent Grammar Go Down (10 September 2013)
Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” (28 June 2013)