Teens and the New Busy – Multi-Tasking With the Screen Machine

As a single, working mother, I brushed my teeth while taking a shower; and fixed dinner while playing referee to two rambunctious tots. My sons, 21 months apart, were preschoolers at the height of my post-divorce stress. Doing more than two things at once was a given. But that was over 20 years ago and it wasn’t termed multi-tasking then. It was called survival.

Today parents still consider multi-tasking a necessity, but now in our high-tech society, small screen devices have made multi-tasking a must in the workplace, too.

In fact, if you’re a working adult who doesn’t prefer to multi-task or who refuses to, expect peer pressure or even a pink slip. The 30-something gentleman I sat next to on an Amtrak ride from New York City to Philadelphia couldn’t tell his boss, “No, I can’t be at the meeting, I’m traveling at the time.” Instead, in the comfort of his Amtrak business-class seat, he opened his laptop, plugged himself into headphones on his cell/BlackBerry and he was “there,” speaking to at least eight people from what I could tell. Since we sat so close we shared mutual lint on our coat sleeves, I was dragged into this meeting whether I liked it or not.
I wanted to sleep; rest, ponder what I learned from the retreat I had just experienced. I wanted silence next to me not the price fluctuations of stock or opinions about what to buy next. I didn’t need fragmented sentences of “No, sir…could be, I’ll check into that…or yeah…that makes sense!” interrupting my thoughts at regular intervals. What I wanted-peace and quiet-I couldn’t get since the train was packed and no other seat available. In fact, as I looked around I saw most were doing the same as my seat companion. Help! I was a prisoner on a train of screen machine multi-tasking.

With computers and small screen machines as the communication devices of choice, adults often don’t have a choice. In their work world, they must use these gadgets well and know how to use several at a time when expected. If many adults need tech multi-tasking skills to thrive in their careers, what do we need to be teaching our teens about this? Or should we even be teaching our kids to media multi-task? Isn’t it harmful to their developing brains?

The issues can get complicated. But in the end, as parents, it makes sense to:
Make sure our teen daily experiences activities that will grow his/her brain optimally, and
Make sure our teen is enjoying a healthy socialization process and using the Internet and small screen devices wisely and safely.

Today’s teens have been called “natives” of this new high tech world. Youth, having grown up with small screens are considerably more savvy than their parents or their grandparents when it comes to navigating computers, sending instant messages, or changing the phone number list on a cell phone, for that matter. Kids, so accustomed to screen gadgets, naturally become adept very quickly at multi-tasking.
But the technology itself makes multi-tasking easy: pop-ups when using the internet; split screens; text messaging to “vote” while watching a certain TV program; downloading music while typing on the computer, and on it goes. In research on teens and multi-tasking, one 17 year-old boy is quoted as, “I multi-task every single second I am online. At this very moment, I am watching TV, checking, my e-mail every two minutes, reading a newsgroup about who shot JFK, burning some music to a CD and writing this message.” (Kaiser Family Foundation) U.S. kids, ages 8-18 spend about 6.5 hours per day with media; often multi-tasking.

Is this in the best interests of our kids? Can their growing brains thrive with so much screen use and multi-tasking activities? Multi-tasking splits attention and can contribute to inabilities to focus attention over a period of time. Most information processing theories indicate that the brain has a limit to how much information can be processed. However, the type of information being processed is important, along with the maturity of the brain processing it. For instance, after the age of 14 most brains can track 5-7 things at once. As you are reading this information, you may be thinking of a past experience or something you have to do such as grocery shopping. You may even be listing the items to pick up at the store while digesting what you are reading here and thinking about what applies for your family. Past, future, and present all converge in our brain/mind and we navigate all three simultaneously-often without knowing it.

This “brain skill’ is being used when teens are multi-tasking and enables the shift of attention to take place rapidly. So for tracking and shifting attention, media multi-tasking is good practice. But teens do not need 6 hours of this practice daily. In fact, an ideal would be to limit screen use and multi-tasking using screen devices to 1-2 hours a day, if at all possible. More is lost than gained with teen media multi-tasking.
Since the human brain does not mature until age 22-23, your teen’s brain is still growing, making it vulnerable to negative experiences. Shifting attention constantly back and forth as required in multi-tasking limits the time your teen can spend on more focused, more concentrated activities. Putting the mind on one thing at a time and fully experiencing that moment to moment focus has been called “mindfulness” and it has become an important aspect of recent brain research.

Because people who practice mindfulness benefit from it (such as longer lives; less physical suffering or can manage physical suffering better than people who don’t practice it), mindfulness has caught the attention of a few key brain development researchers. Daniel Siegel, in particular, has provided a comprehensive understanding of the importance of mindfulness in his book, The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being. He reframes mindfulness as a way to have a deeper relationship with one’s self. (Siegel) By “going within” we enhance our awareness of each moment and how we respond to that moment, thus enhancing our self-knowledge in the process. With mindfulness our subjective experiences become infused with heighten perceptions and richer meaning. We are more fully engaged with life outside ourselves and life within ourselves.

A person who is able to focus, concentrate, and move slowly through an activity experiences it differently and uses different parts of the brain than a person who rushes through and juggles several things at once. We want our kids to have brains that function well and that means special attention to the prefrontal cortex. Our teens need time to be within reflecting, pondering, incubating-balanced with time to be outward in faster-paced, multi-activities. Otherwise the growth of the pre-frontal cortex is compromised.

This area behind the forehead is the last part of the brain to mature and the area that comprises higher-level thinking and many other functions as well. Often called, “the executive function,” the prefrontal cortex regulates body functions, balances emotions, attunes to others, modulates fear, helps us responds flexibly, exhibits insight and empathy, and helps us make moral decisions, and basically acts as the determiner in will, intrinsic motivation, and perseverance amid challenges.

When we attend to the health of our teens’ pre-frontal cortex, we support not only his/her brain development, but we also provide a way to balance media multi-tasking and help our teens put their screen use in an accurate perspective, allowing for a meta-awareness. Gaining a meta-awareness about the practice of media-multi-tasking is critical for long-term control of screen devices, and helps pre-teens to accept limits and guidelines about multi-media use. Here are key ways to nurture the developing pre-frontal lobe during adolescence. An important parental leveraging point to start with is to focus on what your teen appreciated about him or herself in a certain situation and what he/she appreciated about that situation or experience.

Parents can ask:
What do you appreciate about your thinking abilities?
What did you appreciate about this experience?
Why do you value it?
What did you gain from it?

The ideal pre-frontal lobe activity is like a “science fair project.” It combines left-brain analysis and right-brain creative expression that is open-ended. What does your teen love to do that would require these two important components? Some everyday experiences that are packed with both left/right brain engagement are: cooking from a personal recipe; designing an activity for a younger child; planning a weekend family outing; formulating and keeping a scrapbook; fixing something in car engine; motorcycle or around the house and planning ahead for avoiding the problem again; forecasting ideas for college days based on current needs; discerning the individual or group patterns in a sports game such as football or basketball and then designing adjustments that one thinks will work; reading an interesting article; talking about it and then applying something from it in one’s own life.

Give your teen time to think. Asking your son or daughter to think intentionally about something over a period of time such as overnight or over a weekend, before coming back to it, will help instill reflecting abilities. Sometimes he/she might forget to do the thinking-that is OK, just try again. Taking time for such intentional thinking and modeling it often yourself, also, will support the value of this thought process as your teen looks on.

Make silence a friend. Going into silence may not seem “normal” for today’s teens, yet the human brain needs and thrives on regular doses of silence. How can you provide times of silence for your teen? One way would be to combine family prayer with contemplation, intentionally turning off all environmental sounds. Another way is to ban the use of TV or music while doing certain types of homework that require deep thinking such as writing essays or doing math calculations.

Limits and Guidelines
Our goal is to advance our teen’s autonomy, competence, and relatedness (ability to relate well to self and others) while providing a healthy structure for him/her to do so. In this way limits have a reason for rather than a prohibitive reason against. Saying to your son or daughter, “I want you to be able to make good choices.” Or “I think you made a sound decision here, what do you think?” focuses on the teen’s ability to take care of self well. That is what we want, so the first limit is for us as parents to limit the number of restrictions and enhance the number of choices we make available to our kids.
It is also realistic to remind yourself often that teens want to and need to socialize with their peers. Pulling out the cell phone as soon as the school day ends; or text messaging a friend during a family gathering are bound to happen. The important thing is to consider these behaviors within the context of all the activities and experiences that your teen encounters on a daily basis. It’s the sum of all adolescent experiences that will equal a well-rounded future adult.

Having a few “rules” or guidelines in place about multi-tasking will work better than a long list. Here are a few to consider:

Keep the total amount of time socializing on the Internet or through text messaging to less than one-two hours a day. Enforce by taking away privileges. Enlist the help of other parents, the school and/or coaches or other mentors in your child’s life to support this endeavor.

Tease out the number of tasks going on at once and reduce by one. For instance if your teen is listening to music, while-on line chatting and text messaging, make it a rule “only two things at once”…you can say, “After all your brain isn’t done growing, yet.” If your child is doing four things, cut down to three and after a few months, try to bring down to two at a time. That’s plenty for an immature brain.

Take the computer out of your child’s bedroom. Place limits on laptop use. Consider inspecting where your child has visited on the Internet at random intervals as part of your “protection plan” until he/she is 18. If your child has gained your trust, then this might not be necessary. But taking your parental authority seriously is preferable than having your child at risk.

Meet as a family once a week and make goals for media use based on age/stage of brain development for all the kids. Focus on the positive uses, the wise choices, and the mature self-limits your teen is making. Amplifying the positive is a research-proven way to provide opportunities for choice-making, while strengthening your teen’s self-concept, and developing his/her personal agency and autonomy.

Is there a compulsive need arising? Does your teen media multi-task all his/her free time? A rich life is full of fulfilling experiences. Discuss the importance of exploring life beyond the small screen machine and as much as possible provide your teen with opportunities to do so!

Copyright Gloria DeGaetan, 2010. All Rights Reserved.


“Media Multi-Tasking Among American Youth: Prevalence, Predictors and Pairings,” Ulla Foer, Ph.D., The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, December 2006, Publication # 7592, p. 1.

The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being, Daniel Siegel, W.W. Norton and Company, 2007.

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