Digital Natives – Are They Really Skilled at Multitasking?
We have all heard the stories of the teenager in her home, her laptop open as she works on a school assignment, connected at the same time to the internet, conversing via an open chat window even as she has a cellphone pushed against her ear.
The story has it that the parents are more than a tad furious the first time they see this behavior. But after addressing their daughter on the issue they are gently reminded, well maybe not gently, that she has everything covered. The parent, still somewhat incredulous, has to acknowledge they have not heard of any issues at school and well, the last report card was quite good.
Though unable to match the feat themselves, they begin to believe that maybe there is something to this idea of multitasking, that today’s digital generation is hard-wired to handle this seemingly amazing task. Upon hearing the stories it is easy to begin to think along the same lines.
There is just one problem with such thinking – there is no data to show that those who multitask are actually any good at it.
Such were the findings of a recent study discussed by the BBC. In simplest terms, the findings indicated that “the people who engage in media ‘multitasking’ are those least able” to handle this task well.
In the study researchers divided folks into two test groups based on their current propensity to multitask. Those who acknowledged routinely consuming multiple media such as internet, television and mobile phones simultaneously formed one study group while those who did not engage in the behavior were assigned to a second group.
Researchers determined that the low multitaskers‘ group consistently outdid their highly multitasking counterparts on a series of classic psychology tests designed to assess attention and memory skills.
Specific Items Tested
The three classic assessments used were selected based upon the premise that multitaskers were able to multitask because of specific inherent or developed skills.
Computer testing formats were utilized so as to take advantage of the digital multitaskers favorite tools. The tests involved the participant’s ability to ignore irrelevant information or distracters, the degree to which participants were able to organize their working memory and the skills at which they could switch tasks.
In all cases, low multitaskers were better at the task.
Increasing the distracters dramatically affected the high multitaskers but even with few distracters, the low multitasking group outperformed their counterparts. On the tests of working memory, not only did the high multitaskers do poorer from the outset, their performance deteriorated as time went on. And on the issue of switching tasks, the low multitaskers significantly outperformed their counterparts every step of the way.
According to Cliff Nass, one of the researchers, the sum total reveals a rather shocking discovery: “high multitaskers are lousy at everything that’s necessary for multitasking.”
Still the researchers acknowledge that one pressing question remains: are the results of the experiment one of simple cause and effect?
Are those people with a dearth of multitasking skills somehow drawn to multitasking lifestyles? Or does a multitasking lifestyle dull the skills necessary to multitask?
Actually, it is likely that the issue is far more complicated. One would have to assume that studies mapping the brain activity of those who multitask (against those who do not generally do so) may well be necessary to gain any real understanding of what is taking place.
But in the meantime, it would seem that a parent’s gut reaction to witnessing the efforts of that multitasking teenager is basically dead on. That teenager might be ‘managing their situation’ at that moment, but the idea that she could possibly be handling all those tasks simultaneously with as high a level of competency as she would if she were to focus on one alone seems to be up for debate.