Student Achievement

Teenagers and Multitasking May Mix, Says Study by High School Students

By Kathryn Baron — October 14, 2014 2 min read
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The sight of teenagers texting with one hand and jiggling a video game controller with the other—all while watching a video on their tablet—may look like an extreme sugar rush, but a new study suggests that kids who grow up in the thick of digital abundance may actually be rewiring their brains for multitasking, enabling them to make more efficient use of their time.

A study conducted by two high school seniors and presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) national conference this past weekend, found that some teens who “chronically use multiple media” become quite adept at switching between devices and from devices to other tasks without losing their performance edge.

“Maybe practice really does make perfect,” said Alexandra Ulmer, who conducted the research with classmate Sarayu Caulfield, in a news release from the AAP.

“In our current multimedia environment, there are people who are multitasking at an exceedingly high rate, and the reality is that they may have become really good at it,” added Caulfield.

The two young women, both seniors at Oregon Episcopal School in Portland, surveyed about 400 students—196 females and 207 males—between the ages of 10 and 19 and asked about their daily digital habits. Then the students were randomly assigned to complete multitasking activities with or without distractions.

They reported their results in the study “Capacity Limits of Working Memory: The Impact of Media Multitasking on Cognitive Control in the Adolescent Mind.”

“Most people perform better when focusing on one task,” emphasized Caulfield, but she and Ulmer identified a group of teens they call “high media multitaskers.”

These students spent, on average, three hours a day juggling various digital devices, including about half of the 3.5 hours they spent on homework.

They “performed best while actively multitasking,” said Ulmer, but on the flip side, they did worse when asked to focus on a single task.

The other group of “low media multitaskers” averaged about 20 minutes a day mixing it up with their electronics and barely multitasked during the 2.5 hours spent on homework.

Their study contradicts past research suggesting that multitasking is an oxymoron, a myth, a destroyer of concentration and creativity.

“Our study proved just the opposite,” said Caulfield, “and we think that may be due to the fact that all past research has been done on digital immigrants, these are people who did not grow up with (digital) media.”

Today’s teens, on the other hand, are digital natives, who have had multiple multimedia devices around since they were born.

Because Caulfield and Ulmer were using students at their school as participants, they weren’t allowed to ask many personal questions, so the study does not account for differences in students’ previous academic achievement. Additionally, the study hasn’t been peer reviewed yet by other researchers. However, it did take third place in the National Institute on Drug Abuse Science Fair for addiction science, which is part of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.