News / USA

Multi-Tasking, or Mostly Distracting?

Children born in the 21st century come into an age dominated by information technology. Computers, the Internet, cell phones and video games all compete for the attention of young people, as well as many adults. And experts say that the constant use of such devices can affect the way people think.

Multi-Tasking, or Mostly Distracting?
Multi-Tasking, or Mostly Distracting?
Martin Secrest

It's estimated Americans now consume three times as much information each day as they did in 1960, and surveys show that students in the U.S. spend at least six hours a day using electronic devices.  Many of these students use several types of media at once; for example, listening to an iPod and working on the computer, while a television plays in the background.

But this 'multitasking' as it's called may not be so new. In fact, some feel it's as old as humanity itself.

"It's my belief as a scientist that all humans are born multitaskers," says James Olds, a neuroscience professor at George Mason University in the U.S. "It's probably one of our species-defining characteristics."

Olds says that multitasking has advantages that enhance survival. He cites the example of a commercial airline pilot, whose attention must be divided among many sources of information. 

"The pilot is now really sort of, 'master data controller,' running a war room, if you will," he says.  "The ability to fly a modern commercial jet is tremendously advantaged by growing up in the digital age that we exist in now."

But other researchers say that each time a person switches tasks, it takes twice as much time to complete the task. And Steven Yantis, a brain scientist at Johns Hopkins University, says that people who use several forms of media at once - so-called 'high media multitaskers' are even more easily distracted.

"The high media multitaskers were always in a state of looking at multiple sources of information simultaneously, and so they found it more difficult to ignore information that they knew was irrelevant," Yantis notes.  "And that distracting information impaired their ability to focus on the task at hand."

Scientists say that the human brain continues developing well into a person's 20s, but the effect of constant multitasking on brain development is not known.  And like a computer, the human brain has a limited amount of information it can process at once, according to Steven Yantis.

"Although there are billions and billions of neurons, so it has very high capacity, it's not infinite, it's limited, and so we are constantly having to make choices about what we're going to devote our mind to."

When it comes to information found in an online or digital environment, that devotion may go too far.  Researchers at the University of Connecticut found that seventh-grade students had difficulty discerning that a website showing a mythical endangered "Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus" was a hoax.

Says James Olds, all but one of 50 children thought the information on the website was valid - a shocking number.

"The danger of the net is that information doesn't have appropriate labels of credibility attached to it. We need to figure out a way as a society to come up with methods, especially for our children, or rating the credibility of what's out there."

So the question remains - are new media making people less attentive, less studious, or more gullible?  Most experts say no, according to Lee Rainie of the Pew Research Center.

"This isn't a technology question, this is a human question," says Rainie.  "The Internet makes people more of what they already are.  So if you're dumb, if you're prone to shortcuts, if you don't have a good (truth) detector in your head, the Internet will give you lots of information, lots of ways to divert yourself, lots of ways to make you more lazy than you already are.  By the same token, if you're an information omnivore, if you really want to gain expertise in a subject, if you really want to study something in depth, you've never had a better environment than the online environment."

Psychologists continue to study the effect of the Internet on learning, but initial research shows that Internet use can have a positive effect on standardized reading test scores of children.  Unlike television, home Internet use is interactive, and experts say it encourages young people to be more self-directed learners.

You May Like

Video Iran Nuclear Deal Becomes US Campaign Issue

Voters in three crucial battleground states - Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania - overwhelmingly oppose nuclear deal with Iran More

With IS in Coalition Cross-Hairs, al-Qaida's Syria Affiliate Reemerges

Jabhat al-Nusra has rebounded, increasingly casting itself as a critical player in battle for Syria’s future More

Lessons Learned From Katrina, 10 Years Later

FEMA chief Craig Fugate says key changes include better preparation, improved coordination among state, federal assistance agencies More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs