Multitasking or “Constant Partial Attention”?
Most parents of teens have witnessed this situation: Their son or daughter is sitting on the couch with an iPad or laptop in front of them, a mobile phone nearby, and the TV on. They are simultaneously watching a TV show, listening to music videos, checking out Instagram, and sending text messages. Sometimes, in order to “concentrate,” the TV might be muted–but the show is still on “so I don't miss something.”
Some might call it multitasking and say it's one of the great strengths of this generation. Research, however, is debunking the validity of multitasking, saying that it is an impossibility for the human brain to handle more than one task effectively. It can be done, of course, but not without quality suffering.
It's not a big deal if attention is divided across mindless tasks, like surfing the net and watching TV, but if homework is added into the mix, the results of multitasking could be problematic.
Altered States of Consciousness?
Psychologists describe this undesirable state of consciousness as Constant Partial Attention. They say it is just one of the ways technology is “rewiring” the human brain. Constant partial attention compromises focus and stunts students' listening skills. Later on down the track, this bad habit may negatively affect outcomes at university, where the ability to follow long lectures comprises a large part of the course load.
Avoiding Bad Habits
How can parents help their teens avoid developing a habit of Constant Partial Attention? Point it out to them for starters. Often kids end up multitasking by default: they don't realise they are doing it. Mindlessness is the operative word.
Nagging is (almost) never a useful strategy, so talk about good media habits at the right time–not when you want them to do something else and not when they are deeply engrossed in a game of Bejeweled. Those tend to be volatile moments.
Instead, pick a time when they can contribute to a discussion non-emotively. Ask for their opinions and insights, and jointly set some parameters. Talk about energy consumption first and the ill health of their neurons last. The idea is to keep them in the conversation as long as possible. Try really hard to avoid nagging and lecturing.
Students will always require an ability to concentrate deeply and singularly. Reading big books, completing jigsaw puzzles and sudoku, and practising similar activities develop focus. To get the full benefit, they are best done on something other than a digital device. Electronic gadgets, as fun and convenient as they are, are geared to multitasking. Flipping between apps, browser pages, and tasks just reinforces divided attention.
Encourage in your kids a love of books. Play board games and set times for non-digital pursuits. For the physically inclined youngster, mastering particular athletic skills and visualising sporting success are good ways to foster deep concentration.
All of these quiet activities help kids become comfortable with stillness, something that is seriously lacking in our wired world. Of course, parents of faith will recognise the importance of the ability to cope with silence in their kids' spiritual development. Meditation is an under-valued skill amongst young people, and it's a shame because it abounds in wellbeing benefits.
Technology is here to stay, and knowing how to use it effectively is an unquestioned part of a modern education. But at the same time, we have to help our kids learn moderation and become comfortable with a lack of electronic stimulation. Recognising and knowing how to avoid the pitfalls of technology is just as important as being digitally competent.