Do children and teenagers multitask on the Internet?

Hand drawn Bubble for speech.

Nearly 1,000 children and teenagers participated in the 1st National Congress “Joven y en Red” (“Young and Networked”), which was held in Madrid in 2012 and where they presented their opinions about the relationship they establish with the Internet and ICTs. Most of the participants were teenagers between 11 and 16 years old and members of the “Pan-European Youth Panels” that have been created throughout Spain within the framework of the European Commission’s Safer Internet Programme. During this Conference, which was organised by the Safer Internet Centre in Spain PROTEGELES.COM, one of the 14-year-old speakers made an extremely important statement. She said: “one of the main differences between us and our parents is that we are able to multitask. My mother uses just one open window when she’s online, while I, on the contrary, may be logged to my social network and update my profile, answer to an e-mail from a friend and visit a website where I check information to prepare an essay for school. All at the same time.”

Since then, this topic has been regularly brought up during the Youth Panels’ meetings PROTEGELES organizes in Spain. And the reason we bring this up on a regular basis is simple: this statement is FALSE. And furthermore, it may be counter-productive.

When a teenager is sitting in front of a computer with 4 open windows, s/he is not really carrying out 4 different tasks at the same time. What is really taking place is what neuroscientists call “continuous alternating attention”. That is to say, the teenager spends a few minutes (or less) doing one task; then s/he passes to the next task and a few minutes later to the third one. And there is a very simple reason for this: our brain is not able to do two different tasks at the same time when they both involve the same area of the brain.

That is right. Teenagers may study at the same time as they listen to instrumental music, for example. But if they must memorize verbal information at the same time as they listen to music with lyrics in their mother tongue, it will be extremely difficult for them. Their brain will keep jumping from the song’s lyrics to the written text. They will not be able to concentrate, their brain will become exhausted and the information will not settle well. This is because both tasks require activating the same language area.

Professor Jim Taylor, from Denver University, explains that multitasking is only possible if the following two conditions are met:

  1. The tasks must require different types of brain processing.
  2. One of the two tasks must not require thinking, and it must be so well learnt that it can be done automatically (running, cycling…)

This false multitasking concept leads to a very serious problem and has very significant consequences. Many studies, like those by Eppinger, Kray and Mecklinger, prove that when the brain goes from one task to another, neuronal circuits take a recess between the two. Not only does this process take more time, but it also reduces execution efficiency.

Psychologist David Meyer and his team from Michigan University have verified that when a person quickly changes from one mental exercise to another one several times in a row instead of completing one task before starting the next one, his/her brain efficiency may be reduced by up to 50%.

Our brain works better when it focuses on one single task for a certain time, instead of jumping from one task to another one, which implies restarting processes once and again.

This is due to the intervention of our prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is in charge of executive control, that is, of taking decisions; and for this it must manage our goals. Changing to another task means changing our goal, and this implies an effort for our brain, in terms of time and energy. Some studies on the topic point out that the so-called “multitasking” is generating an efficiency loss among company workers of between 20% and 40%. As you can see, this problem is not limited to children and teenagers.

It is important to start working on this issue with digital native children and teenagersbefore they embrace much less effective, more exhausting and slower forms of working. I will go on tackling this topic, and I will later write about how to curb and improve the growing trend of false multitasking.

  • Jim Taylor. Revista Psychology Today: “El mito de la multitarea”.
  • Eppinger, B., Kray, J., Mecklinger, A. y John, O., “Age differences in task switching and response monitoring evidence from ERPs”, Biological Psychiatry, 2007.
  • Rubinstein, JS., Meyer, DE. y Evans, JE., ”Executive control of cognitive processes in task switching”, Journal of Experimental Pychology and Human Perceptual Performance, 2001.


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