We know texting while driving has consequences, but what about texting when doing homework?
It’s something almost all kids do, and most parents have also been known to check their text messages at their desk. If we’re being honest, most of us have our cell phone within arm’s reach when we’re at work, and we will glance at it from time to time. When we’re defending the practice we call it “multitasking.” How bad could it really be?
Pretty bad, according to a recent study that found the mere presence of a smartphone reduces a person’s ability to focus. In the study, undergraduates asked to leave their phones in another room did better on cognitive tests than those who were asked to silence their phones and leave them face down on their desk or in a bag.
In the experiment, even students who said they weren’t thinking consciously about their cell phones still experienced a loss in ability, which means some of this distraction is happening on an unconscious level. This is bad news for those of us who think we’re pretty good at not being distracted by the phone when we’re working.
“I hear about these issues about technology all the time,” says Matt Cruger, director of the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute. He says that with the kids he works with, he isn’t concerned about their capacity to be able to do homework, but with “the capacity to really get in the mindset of thinking about homework-related activities.” In other words, they could do their work if they were able to focus on it. And while trouble focusing on homework is hardly something new for children, captivating new technologies aren’t making it any easier.
Why are tech devices so distracting? For starters, most apps and web content are engineered to be as user-friendly and addictive as possible. They ping us with notifications when we get a new message or when someone has posted something we might be interested in. They are reliable sources of validation that tell us when someone likes something we’ve posted.
And we know there is always something new to look at. Even if we haven’t heard the buzz alerting us to something new, we might find ourselves restlessly reaching for the phone to scroll through the constantly updating feeds full of pictures and headlines and jokes curated just for us. We might also feel some pressure to keep up.
But there are also some less-obvious reasons why kids may be particularly hooked. Phones are where young people do a lot of their socializing now, especially as they reach the pre-teen and teenage years, when their major developmental goals are to start crafting an identity separate from their parents and to prioritize forming friendships with their peers — goals that are made for spending hours on social media.
Compared to adults, kids also have a less developed ability to control their impulses. If it’s sometimes hard for their parents to unplug, imagine how hard it is for a child who struggles with impulsivity or a teen with a new BFF to resist checking her phone. Prioritizing getting started on a book report or even studying for tomorrow’s test won’t be nearly as compelling.
Many adults and kids share the idea that when we are texting or monitoring feeds while we work we are still being productive — we are able to juggle everything at once. But neuropsychologists aren’t optimistic about how productive multitasking really is. “Having multiple sources of technology at your fingertips and available at all times probably is almost a guarantee of a reduction in performance and productivity,” says Dr. Cruger.
For one thing, there’s what experts call “resumption lag.” That’s the period of time between when you were interrupted from a task and when you resume it. Transitioning between tasks isn’t seamless, and the time spent collecting your thoughts prior to resuming a task add up.
A study out of Stanford in 2009 examined how well multitaskers are able to process information. People considered heavy media multitaskers were found to have more difficulty ignoring irrelevant but distracting things in their environment. As a result they actually performed worse on a test of task switching ability when compared to people who were lighter multitaskers.
Multitasking means working less efficiently even when you think you’re applying yourself. That’s because people dividing their attention aren’t able to engage in their work with the fluency they might otherwise have. “They’re not free to think about what’s the best way to do something,” Dr. Cruger explains. “Kids will start a task, try to get the task done, but not take the time to travel along and figure out how to do the task best.”
While the work might still get finished, multitasking adds up to shallower thinking and more time spent actually working. But it’s hard for kids to see it that way. “If you haven’t really established a disciplined routine for learning and thinking, it’s hard to have a sense of what to compare your current performance against,” notes Dr. Cruger.
Kids who struggle with attention
There’s a kind of myth that kids who have ADHD are uniquely suited to multitasking.
At a Child Mind Institute event about how children are affected by technology, Ali Wentworth, actress, comedian and host of the event, described how she found her teenage daughter the evening before: She was doing her homework on one screen, texting on another, with Gilmore Girls playing on a third. When Wentworth protested, her daughter told her, “I have ADHD. This is how I do my homework.”
In reality, multitasking during homework can be particularly difficult for kids who have ADHD.
“There’s pretty compelling literature that suggests that nobody is actually good at multitasking, but I think kids who have ADHD also have a set of cognitive distortions about their skills and capacities,” says Dr. Cruger. “They’re probably worse at multitasking than people without ADHD, but they often think they’re better at it.”
That might be because the constant stimulation offered by tech devices is very appealing to kids with ADHD. Short bursts of attention, with immediate rewards, are easier for them than paying sustained attention. But trying to do both at the same time — juggling homework and Snapchat — would be particularly difficult for them.
That’s because people with ADHD struggle with executive functions, which are the self-regulating skills we use to do things like shift between situations, control our emotions and impulsivity, and organize and make plans. These are all skills that are integral to doing homework and they are weakened further when we are dividing our attention across multiple platforms.
“One of the psychological impacts for people with ADHD is they have to make smart decisions about how to use their resources wisely because they have limited attentional resources and they have limited capacity to do the hard work of learning naturally,” explains Dr. Cruger. “It just takes more effort for them.”
Given that kids with ADHD are particularly susceptible to the stimulation that tech devices provide, and that focusing on homework is already harder for them, successfully doing both would be incredibly difficult.
Related: What Is Working Memory?
A distraction-free mind
Setting up a homework routine that minimizes distractions is important, especially if your child struggles with attention, or seems to be finding that her homework is taking much longer than it should.
Let her know that the goal is to make doing homework easier and less stressful. Removing those distractions should improve her homework experience and leave her with more actual free time.
If it’s difficult to get your child’s buy-in, establishing regular homework breaks where she gets to walk away from her homework and check social media or check her texts can make this an easier sell. But to be effective, the breaks should be planned and discrete — they shouldn’t bleed into homework time and ideally they should happen away from her study space, which should be a place for focusing.
This sort of discipline might not come naturally to kids or adults, but learning to unplug from distractions is a life skill that will become increasingly important as technology becomes more absorbing, and the need to learn and stay focused doesn’t go away.
Do Video Games Cause ADHD?
Strategies to Make Homework Go More Smoothly
How Using Social Media Affects Teenagers
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The world's richest footballer would have been amazed to see under those sheets the growing legion of the city's homeless eking out a desperately poor but astonishingly disciplined life.
Shinjuku Central Park was intended as the recreational centre of one of the capital's most ambitious developments, but it is now a giant outdoor dormitory for labourers and salarymen pushed out of work by recession.
As well as the Park Hyatt hotel, the park is a stone's throw from the futuristic 42-storey metropolitan government building and a host of other awe-inspiring structures conceived at the height of Japan's economic power.
Yet this symbol of the city's optimism a decade ago has become one of the few visible signs of the drawn-out decline since then, with several hundred temporary residences of cardboard and tarpaulin squeezed behind bushes and alongside the park's temple.
The orderly behaviour of its residents also helps to explain why Japan has been able to suffer a 12-year slump without the wrenching social disturbance that might be expected elsewhere.
In the past seven years, government statistics say the homeless population in Japan has more than doubled to 25,200, of whom 5,700 live in the capital. The numbers are tiny compared with London, Paris and New York, but anti-poverty campaigners argue the problem is under-reported.
Many of those in Shinjuku Central Park appear so ashamed of their lowly status that they would rather not be noticed at all. Most of them are ultra polite, even apologetic, are rarely implicated in crimes and do not usually beg, preferring to work whenever possible by recycling cans, labouring or queuing up for concert tickets for yakuza ticket touts.
Not only are the park's lawns, paths and toilets kept spotless, but the inside of the tarpaulin homes are so regularly swept and tidied that this writer felt ashamed of his dusty office. As for any Japanese house, visitors must remove their shoes before stepping on to the cardboard floor and the futons are aired on the railings outside.
It may be the bottom of the social heap, but hierarchical values seem as strong here as anywhere. Far from the survival of the fittest, the pecking order is at least partly determined by seniority: those who have stayed in the park the longest live in homes of stout hardboard near the outer railings. Further inside are rows of tarpaulin tents, which have addresses recognised by the post office. Finally, there are the newcomers who must make do with benches and cardboard.
Drugs and alcohol are remarkable by their absence. The only empty cans (all carefully collected) are of a soft drink distributed by a Christian charity.
The residents, who are mostly men in the late 50s, the generation worst hit by the economic slump, seem accustomed to gaman (endurance) the teeth-gritting habit of a lifetime, inculcated by a conformist education and driven home by decades of corporate loyalty.
That system may have failed them, but usually there is little protest. The exception last year was a demonstration by 250 homeless people, which encouraged the government to allocate its first budget for rehousing, retraining and healthcare for the homeless.
For the most part though, the mood is one of resignation. "I get cold and hungry, but there is no point complaining. It's just the recession," said one of the park's newest residents. "I just have to keep looking for work and hoping that things pick up."