New research shows that people rarely win when they try to pay attention to other people and to media at the same time.
The human brain is pretty amazing. It not only manages our breathing and all the other functions of our body without us having to consciously think about it, but it can invent, feel, memorize, strategize, explore, and a host of other really cool verbs. But the human brain has one major weakness—it can think about only one thing at a time really well. When we try to think about multiple things at once, our ability to think about any of them suffers. Quite a bit of research shows that people who are considered heavy media multitaskers perform much worse on a host of academic and cognitive tasks. In other words, when we have music playing in the background (especially music with lyrics instead of just instrumental music) while doing homework, we tend to perform worse on the homework and on listening to the music. Even though we think we can, we just can’t think well about more than one thing at a time. Multitasking is not a good thing to put on a resume.
This lack of ability to multitask also has real life implications for children’s social relationships. A study in the journal Developmental Psychology surveyed more than 3,000 girls ages 8-12 about their media habits and about several indicators of their social well-being. Among these kids, media multitasking was associated with negative social outcomes, including feeling like they don’t have many close friends, feeling like they aren’t accepted by other kids their age, having more friends who are considered bad influences by their parents, and less sleep. Interestingly, girls who multitasked more tended to spend time in face-to-face communication with real people less. And vice versa, girls who spent more time in face-to-face communication spent less time media multitasking.
So, what does this mean for our kids? First, it’s not just academics and cognitive tasks that suffer when we try to use multiple media at once—our kids’ interpersonal relationships also suffer due to media multitasking. And this makes pretty good sense, doesn’t it? We can’t pay attention to two things well at once, let alone three things. We can’t pay attention to Spotify, our homework, and to another person at the same time. We can’t watch a basketball game on TV and have a meaningful conversation with a teenager at the same time (I found this out earlier this week). I believe that we can create family bonds and memorable experiences through sharing media time with our kids, but this research provides evidence that trying to use too much media at once can have negative consequences for our kids’ social well-being.
As a parent, one last thing I think we can take away from this research is that too much “noise” may not be good. I think we forget what it’s like to turn off all media and to just focus on another person. I find that I like having background noise on when I’m doing something. But maybe the background noise our kids need to hear is us talking to them and playing games with them, instead of music or voices piped in from who-knows-where. Quiet can be good. And in our media-saturated world, any effort to find those quiet moments is worth our efforts.