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Q: Every day, when my daughter comes home from school to start on her homework, she pops on the computer. She opens a streaming video window, a chat window, video chat, Facebook,
iTunes, and then a Word window in which she starts working on her current writing project. The computer tends to stay on until she gets ready for bed. I think that is too much distraction when she should be focusing on school, but I also want her to develop the ability to regulate herself. Since she’s gotten mostly A’s in school, with only a few little blips, it’s hard for me to substantiate any bad effects this is having on her. Any suggestions?

Much Ado about Multitasking in Menlo Park, CA

A: Dear Much Ado,

According to this Washington Post article, you and your daughter are not the only ones facing this situation. In fact, one report showed that when kids are doing homework on the computer, they are also doing something else 65% of the time. Regardless of the fact that lots of kids are doing it, this kind of multitasking does raise a lot of questions about the quality of thought and attention that students are able to maintain while rapidly switching between so many things.

Research from 2003 shows that when kids watched soap operas while doing homework, it took them longer to complete their assignment and they did not perform as well as when they did homework without media distraction.  In the 6 years since that study was completed, similar research has not yet been published on the learning effects of the hyper-multitasking environment we live in now. However, I can imagine that if just background TV produced lower quality work, then adding 5 computer programs to the mix is even more distracting.

While it’s great that your daughter is getting mostly
A’s at the moment, short-term grades are not always an accurate reflection of her growing ability to think critically. By multitasking in this way, her brain is getting into a pattern of thinking superficially about topics rather than analyzing them deeply.  She may even be developing a habit of striving for "good enough", rather than the best she can do.

I would recommend having your daughter do her computer-based homework in a family area like the living room, where she may be less likely to spend time engaging with her friends and more time trying to get through an assignment because there are others nearby. If you are concerned that her work is suffering because of her multitasking, discuss your concerns with her. If she claims that multitasking makes no difference, have her do a trial run where she completes homework with no other windows open. Watch how her work progresses. She may be pleasantly surprised at how much more efficient and thoughtful her work quality is when she has eliminated distractions. And she may even realize that the sooner her assignments are completed, the more time she has to enjoy focusing soley on interacting with her friends at the end of the night. 

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician

2 Responses to “Does multitasking with media distract kids from homework?”

  1. CMCH

    Thank you Hans, we weren’t aware of this study, but will add it to our database now. Very interesting results that the multitaskers were distracted so often!

    Reply

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