A silhouette of a young woman trying to multitask

Can Young People Multitask? Apparently not.

Many young people think they can multitask, but research shows otherwise says Ying Hu

Can young people multitask?

Teens think they can multitask. They are wrong. Research explains why they are wrong, but before we get to that, let me address those of you who insist that you can indeed multi-task. (And if you believe you’re a master at multitasking,  you’re very likely among the worst at it).

Try this little experiment:

  1. Spell out loud “I cannot multitask” letter by letter while simultaneously typing your full name.
  2. Spell “I cannot multitask” first, then type your full name.

How much time did you spend on each task? I used 13 seconds for the first task and 7 seconds for the second task. I also misspelled two letters in the first task. 

Netflix and study.

In today’s fast-paced society, doing one task at a time seems so unproductive. With so many distractions from social media, games, and entertainment, it becomes especially challenging for teenagers to focus on only one piece of work at a time. Many young people believe they are good at multitasking as they watch Netflix while doing homework, and I used to be one of them. However, through research and experiments, psychologists concluded that the human brain does not have the capacity to perform heavy multi-tasks efficiently, and doing so only slows people down. 

The flood of distractions.

As my school continues in online classes during the pandemic, I have been doing much more multitasking. Replying to an email or texting friends only takes seconds and will not affect my listening to the teacher, right? Also, because my friends and I cannot see each other face-to-face, we chose to meet on Zoom and do homework together. It turned out that I did not fully understand what my teacher said, and I spent two hours on ten math problems. Sound familiar?

What is multitasking?

Multitasking is simply switching attention back-and-forth between two cognitive tasks, or undertakings that require people to focus and mentally process new information. People are good at switching attention quickly, so many assume they succeed in multitasking. But by dividing attention, both the chances of making mistakes and the cost of time dramatically increase. 

Every time you switch a task, you need time to adjust your mental control settings. Your brain needs to reconfigure control settings for a new activity. First, it keeps the memory of where you left off the task, then decides what task you want to change and how. For example, you do your Spanish homework for five minutes, then do math homework for five minutes. As a result of your brain switching your mental settings between Spanish and English, as well as verbal and logic skills, the time costs increase.  

Testing the truth.

Psychologists conducted many more task-switching experiments like the example above and measured the time costs. Experiments showed that in no matter what aspects, including complexity and familiarity of the tasks, single taskers outperformed and spent less time than multitaskers. 

Furthermore, Stanford communication professor Clifford Nass’s study should wake teenagers up. He experimented with one hundred college students, and the results were surprising. 

Heavy media-multitaskers, who jump from one website to another, texting friends and reading emails while doing homework, performed terribly on attention tests. The results suggested that when these multitaskers faced multiple sources of information, they would be easily distracted by irrelevant information and struggled to organize and store information in their brains, leading to inferior memories. 

Is it possible that multitaskers are faster at switching tasks than anyone else? Clifford Nass and his colleagues conducted another experiment to know. Ironically, heavy multitaskers required more time to switch from tasks as well. 

Our limited attention spans.

People’s attention is finite, and our brains cannot pay attention to more than one job at a time. Much more research demonstrated that when people divide their attention because of multitasking, adverse effects follow. 

Watching TV while eating seems so relaxing and a great way of multitasking. Chiefly, this action works in multitasking because eating is an automatic activity—a physical activity that has been completed so often that it does not require thinking. 

Watching TV, however, is more complex, and makes it difficult for the human brain to process how much and what food people are eating. Another example is walking while talking. Walking is an automatic activity, but studies proved that the chances of bumping into others escalate while you talk and walk. 

Risking Accidents.

Additionally, multitasking leads to distracted driving. When people text or talk while driving, not only do they take a longer time to get to the destination, their risks of accidents skyrocket. A study at Utah University showed that drivers who used cell phones when driving are actually less capable of multitasking and took longer to drive. They are also more likely to be impulsive and sensation-driven than single taskers, bringing more danger to driving. The danger of distracted driving is severe, and distracted driving plays an increasingly larger role in teen car accidents. According to NHTSA, nine percent of all teen motor vehicle crash fatalities in 2017 involved distracted driving

So…why do we multitask?

The researchers at Utah University proposed that people who love multitasking tend to have difficulty focusing on one activity and are sensation-seeking. Doing several activities is more stimulating and exciting. Hence, they applied multitasking to their lives. 

But do not be tempted by the fleeting dopamine hit of switching to a new activity when you are in the middle of a task. The evidence is overwhelming that multitasking increases the chance of making mistakes, consumes more time, interferes with memory storing, and even brings harm to our lives. How to improve productivity? The right answer is one task at a time!  

Ying Hu

Ying Hu

Ying Hu is a junior at Rutgers Preparatory School in New Jersey. She is passionate about psychology and neuroscience. She has taken college-level psychology courses and is conducting her own research. She started a non-profit organization called Cultural Bridge to aid underprivileged students' education during the pandemic. In her free time, she enjoys swimming, painting, and practicing Chinese calligraphy.

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Can Young People Multitask? Apparently not.

by Ying Hu Reading time: 4 min
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