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Childhood in the digital age
Childhood in the digital age

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3.1.3 An epidemic of distracted youngsters?

Many ‘digital natives’ multitask with technology. They can be texting on their smartphone, sending an email, logged into Facebook and listening to music, all at the same time. A recent study by CourseSmart and Wakefield Research (Kessler, 2011) surveyed 500 college students and found that 73 per cent were not able to study without some form of technology, and 38 per cent reported that they were not able to go more than 10 minutes without checking their laptop, smartphone, tablet or e-reader.

For the new generation of children and teenagers, this multitasking behaviour is an expected part of their everyday life. Text messaging and social networking are clearly important to them and can be emotionally gratifying. But how do such technological distractions impact on their learning and attention? Research has increasingly examined issues of multitasking and distraction as children squeeze more and more activities into their days and evenings. Is technology merely a distraction from learning or is it in fact promoting a skill that is of genuine value?

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Figure 3 How many different kinds of almost simultaneous input can one brain cope with?

The problem with multitasking is the need to keep changing backwards and forwards from one activity to another, switching your thoughts between tasks repeatedly. Multitasking with a phone is so prevalent among those with access to these technologies that one study even called it the ‘epidemic of distraction’ (Valkenburg, 2011). The question whether heavy multitaskers disadvantage their future development is taken up by Lui and Wong (2012), who show negative consequences of multitasking. Children have been shown to perform poorly in certain cognitive tasks involving task switching, selective attention and working memory, possibly because they tend to pay superficial attention to lots of information all at the same time without focusing sufficiently on the information that is most relevant to the task (Lui and Wong, 2012). You can imagine the media headline related to this ‘Modern Kids Unable To Focus Due To Distractions’, or similar.

Again, however, not all experts agree that multitasking is bad for children.