College students: Media-savvy multitaskers or scatterbrained procrastinators?

Liz Goodwin, Yahoo News
Yahoo News

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BOSTON - SEPTEMBER 22: Leanne Bowes of Conn., a student at Emerson College, uses her cell phone for texting at …

Sean, a history major and a senior at Suffolk University in Boston, opens his laptop with the best of intentions — to do his course work. But before he knows what’s happened, a dozen browser tabs are open and hours have slipped by.

"Dude, the Internet is a black hole,” Sean told Yahoo News. He didn’t want his last name used so as not to impede his future job search.

“When you're doing schoolwork there's so many distractions that can just lead you away from being productive,” Sean said. “I'll be researching the fugitive slave law and all of a sudden I'm checking how many points Larry Bird had in game 7 of the 1984 finals with really no idea of how the transition occurred."

Teens heading to college for the first time this fall have never known life without the Internet and have grown up immersed in digital distractions and stimuli.

Researchers are just now beginning to understand how being glued to devices throughout their growing-up years is transforming young people’s brains — and what that means for those young people’s ability to learn and filter out distractions while trying to succeed in a college environment that demands long, uninterrupted periods of focus.

The most comprehensive study yet on the media habits of young people found that more than 60 percent of people aged 8-18 do their schoolwork while also consuming or using some other form of media, such as TV or instant message.

Researchers have only recently begun measuring multitasking, so it’s unclear how much of an increase this represents. But many in the field believe that rapidly switching between tasks and stimuli across devices — texting while emailing, scanning social media sites and writing a paper all at the same time, for example — is now the norm.

The temptation to multitask only increases in college, as students compose term papers on laptops that are constantly pinging them with new emails and IMs and offering up the manifold temptations of browser tabs.

A battery of experiments and research has shown that constantly shifting one’s attention between stimuli and tasks impairs the ability to focus and understand complex concepts. But at least one prominent researcher decided to test that theory, wondering if young people have adapted to the new media environment better than those who weren’t born into it, and thus are able to toggle between dozens of tasks while avoiding these cognitive drawbacks.

Stanford University communications professor Clifford Nass launched his study after watching undergrads on campus switching between dozens of tasks on their phones and computers, as if it were second nature.

“I was totally jealous of these kids and wanted to know how they could do what I couldn’t do and why,” Nass recalled.

So Nass helped design a 2009 study comparing people who consume several forms of media at once (described as “heavy media multitaskers”) with those who did not frequently multitask. He asked both groups to complete an experiment requiring focus — showing them a computer screen with blue and red rectangles and asking them to ignore the blue ones while indicating whether the red shapes had moved position.

What Nass found out about people who multitask the most in their daily lives destroyed his theory — they were actually worse at filtering out distractions and even worse at switching between tasks than people who say they rarely multitask.

Nass, a self-proclaimed lover of technology and gadgets, said he was “stunned” by the results. It turns out the freshmen he saw constantly consuming several forms of media did not have a trick or secret that allowed them to avoid the cognitive overload of doing multiple things at once.

But some surveys show many young people believe their multitasking is actually increasing their productivity because they are getting a lot of tasks partly done. But when their ability to focus is tested, the opposite is shown to be the case. They are worse at concentration, abstract and complex thinking and even switching between tasks.

Nass also found frequent multitaskers use a completely different part of their brain when switching between tasks than those who tend to focus on one task at a time.

Low multitaskers use a small portion of their prefrontal cortex when task-switching. High multitaskers activate entirely different parts of their brain that are 20 times as large, suggesting they are frantically scanning the environment every time they need to switch tasks instead of making a controlled and focused mental shift.

“Your brain tends to essentially get in the habit of not really focusing,” Nass said of young multitaskers.

Scientists still don’t know whether there is a causal link between multitasking and poorer cognitive function, because it’s possible that people who choose to multitask are naturally less focused anyway. And there might be ways in which multitasking actually boosts cognitive function that has just not been found in experiments yet.

But the brain scans raise the possibility that a generation of kids who spend most of their waking hours doing several things at once are not properly developing their prefrontal cortices — the part of the brain that helps regulate emotions and delay gratification in favor of longer-term goals.

“It’s a huge worry,” Nass said. “These are people who have to run society. We all worry about what’s going to happen.”

He added, “We’ve got to help these kids pay attention.”

But other researchers argue that colleges should adapt to the younger generation’s brains, not the other way around — and that multitasking is not necessarily a bad thing.

The literary critic N. Katherine Hayles argued in a 2010 paper that constant multitasking is just a different form of attention, not necessarily worse than concentrated focus.

Educators in the older generation demand “deep attention” from their students, like expecting them to focus single-mindedly on reading a Victorian novel. The younger generation, Hayles said, seems drawn to “hyper attention,” which allows them to rapidly scan changing environments and absorb and respond to multiple stimuli and information streams.

She pointed out that some jobs demand this constant hyper attention, which means universities should not consider it a lesser skill.

“As students move deeper into the mode of hyper attention, educators face a choice: change the students to fit the educational environment or change that environment to fit the students,” she wrote. For example, Hayles recommends pairing reading assignments with thematically similar video games as a way to keep young students’ attention.

Other experts have made similar suggestions, urging colleges to adapt by offering more streams of information in class, turning classes away from the lecture model to interactive discussions and urging students to instantaneously broadcast what they’re learning on Twitter and other social media sites.

The constant quest for stimulation, however, can feed into a self-defeating procrastination loop. Procrastination and distraction have in many ways been the perpetual plight of the college student. (The Dalai Lama even said he struggled with chronic “laziness” while in college, long before the distractions of smartphones and Facebook.)

But the ever-growing demands on our attention posed by technology have drastically increased the opportunities to procrastinate, while also fundamentally affecting the brain’s capacity to concentrate.

Piers Steel, a Canadian procrastination researcher who has found that about 25 percent of Americans say they have a chronic procrastination problem, said students are “slicing the world into smaller and smaller segments,” until they can no longer focus on just one thing.

Steel recently observed a young woman texting while riding on a Disneyland roller coaster, an experience one would imagine would be stimulation enough.

Steel said college is a “perfect storm” for procrastination. “The tasks they’re charged to do themselves are unpleasant and also distant in the future,” he said. “Meanwhile you have a backdrop of temptations that are immediate in the here and now.”

Explore the entire Born Digital series from Yahoo News:

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Born Digital: First person accounts of how technology is changing the college experience
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