Time Magazine asks the question “Are Kids Too Wired For Their Own Good?”
The Multitasking Generation
They’re e-mailing, IMing and downloading while writing the history essay. What is all that digital juggling doing to kids’ brains and their family life?
— reported by Time Magazine
HUMAN BEINGS HAVE ALWAYS HAD A CAPACITY to attend to several things at once. Mothers have done it since the hunter-gatherer era–picking berries while suckling an infant, stirring the pot with one eye on the toddler. Nor is electronic multitasking entirely new: we’ve been driving while listening to car radios since they became popular in the 1930s. But there is no doubt that the phenomenon has reached a kind of warp speed in the era of Web-enabled computers, when it has become routine to conduct six IM conversations, watch American Idol on TV and Google the names of last season’s finalists all at once.
That level of multiprocessing and interpersonal connectivity is now so commonplace that it’s easy to forget how quickly it came about. Fifteen years ago, most home computers weren’t even linked to the Internet. In 1990 the majority of adolescents responding to a survey done by Donald Roberts, a professor of communication at Stanford, said the one medium they couldn’t live without was a radio/CD player. How quaint. In a 2004 follow-up, the computer won hands down.
Today 82% of kids are online by the seventh grade, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. And what they love about the computer, of course, is that it offers the radio/CD thing and so much more–games, movies, e-mail, IM, Google, MySpace. The big finding of a 2005 survey of Americans ages 8 to 18 by the Kaiser Family Foundation, co-authored by Roberts, is not that kids were spending a larger chunk of time using electronic media–that was holding steady at 6.5 hours a day (could it possibly get any bigger?)–but that they were packing more media exposure into that time: 8.5 hours’ worth, thanks to “media multitasking”–listening to iTunes, watching a DVD and IMing friends all at the same time. Increasingly, the media-hungry members of Generation M, as Kaiser dubbed them, don’t just sit down to watch a TV show with their friends or family. From a quarter to a third of them, according to the survey, say they simultaneously absorb some other medium “most of the time” while watching TV, listening to music, using the computer or even while reading.
Parents have watched this phenomenon unfold with a mixture of awe and concern. The Coxes, for instance, are bowled over by their children’s technical prowess. Piers repairs the family computers and DVD player. Bronte uses digital technology to compose elaborate photo collages and create a documentary of her father’s ongoing treatment for cancer. And, says Georgina, “they both make these fancy PowerPoint presentations about what they want for Christmas.” But both parents worry about the ways that kids’ compulsive screen time is affecting their schoolwork and squeezing out family life. “We rarely have dinner together anymore,” frets Stephen. “Everyone is in their own little world, and we don’t get out together to have a social life.”
Every generation of adults sees new technology–and the social changes it stirs–as a threat to the rightful order of things: Plato warned (correctly) that reading would be the downfall of oral tradition and memory. And every generation of teenagers embraces the freedoms and possibilities wrought by technology in ways that shock the elders: just think about what the automobile did for dating.
As for multitasking devices, social scientists and educators are just beginning to assess their impact, but the researchers already have some strong opinions. The mental habit of dividing one’s attention into many small slices has significant implications for the way young people learn, reason, socialize, do creative work and understand the world. Although such habits may prepare kids for today’s frenzied workplace, many cognitive scientists are positively alarmed by the trend. “Kids that are instant messaging while doing homework, playing games online and watching TV, I predict, aren’t going to do well in the long run,” says Jordan Grafman, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Decades of research (not to mention common sense) indicate that the quality of one’s output and depth of thought deteriorate as one attends to ever more tasks. Some are concerned about the disappearance of mental downtime to relax and reflect. Roberts notes Stanford students “can’t go the few minutes between their 10 o’clock and 11 o’clock classes without talking on their cell phones. It seems to me that there’s almost a discomfort with not being stimulated–a kind of ‘I can’t stand the silence.'”
Gen M’s multitasking habits have social and psychological implications as well. If you’re IMing four friends while watching That ’70s Show, it’s not the same as sitting on the couch with your buddies or your sisters and watching the show together. Or sharing a family meal across a table. Thousands of years of evolution created human physical communication–facial expressions, body language–that puts broadband to shame in its ability to convey meaning and create bonds. What happens, wonders UCLA’s Ochs, as we replace side-by-side and eye-to-eye human connections with quick, disembodied e-exchanges? Those are critical issues not just for social scientists but for parents and teachers trying to understand–and do right by–Generation M.
Found via LifeHacker.