Media Multitasking While Learning

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In 1 Timothy 4: 15, I read “Put these things into practice, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress.”

Do your children multitask while doing homework? Does media multitasking allow them to devote themselves to learning? Researchers tell us that students are on task only about 65% of the time when they have access to technology. Many of them cannot last even a few minutes without engaging their devices.

The bad news about this is that under most conditions, the brain simply cannot do two complex tasks at the same time. When two tasks are very simple and don’t compete for the same mental resources – for example, folding laundry and listening to a radio weather report – most people can multitask efficiently. But with academic work, this is not the case.



  • Assignments take longer to complete because of the time taken up with distractions and the time it takes to refocus after an interruption.
  • There’s more mental fatigue from repeatedly dropping and picking up mental threads, which leads to more mistakes. Task-switching is especially tiring when students move between formal, precise language tasks and informal, colloquial banter.
  • Learning is patchier and shallower.
  • Students remember less well. The moment of encoding is what matters most for retention and dozens of laboratory studies have demonstrated that when our attention is divided during encoding, we remember that piece of information less well – or not at all.
  • Students have greater difficulty understanding information and transferring learning to new contexts.


Multitasking isn’t a problem if a child wants to tweet while watching television, or listen to music while playing a video game. But when students are doing serious work with their minds, they must have focus. Texting, emailing, and posting on social media are mentally complex, drawing on the same brain resources (like using language and discerning meaning) as schoolwork.

Much of young people’s technology use is often about quelling anxiety – FOMO or the Fear of Missing Out. They don’t want to be the last person to hear some news, or ‘like’ someone’s post.

Constant texting, however, qualifies as compulsive behaviour that must be managed if kids are to learn and perform at their best.

The biggest problem is that students don’t believe this is a problem. Many young people think they can perform two challenging tasks at once, but this is not so.

What can parents do? Accept young people’s use of technology but draw a firm line on using it while doing schoolwork, emphasising that this is a time when you concentrate on just one thing.


Acknowledgment: “You’ll Never Learn! Students Can’t Resist Multitasking, and It’s Impairing Memory” by Annie Murphy Paul in Slate, May 3, 2013



Adrian Scott


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