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Last updated on April 23, 2014 at 20:10 EDT

Multitasking In Teens Can Cause Forgetfulness

October 10, 2008

We live in a fast paced world these days, but scientists now say that changing activities quickly in the middle of a task can slow us down.

Though current technology lets people perform several tasks simultaneously, doing all of these at once can cause our brains to lose links to essential information.

Basically, processing information takes additional time because we have to send our brains reminders to tell them what we were working on.

Zach Weinberg, a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, sits at his computer at his home in Maryland.

In only a few moments, Zach has checked his e-mail and Facebook, updated his iTunes, played a computer word puzzle game and sent a few online messages. In between all his activity, Zach somehow completes his homework too.

Barbara Donesky, Alex’s mom, is amazed by how her son’s skills have developed, and how rapidly he can navigate around on the computer.

However, she’s concerned that Alex is behind on other skills.

“I want him to be able to concentrate. I want him to be able to focus,” she says.

“I mean, it’s my personal belief that all these things just fragment your ability to concentrate. And I see it in myself, you know, since I’ve started e-mailing and using the computer very regularly.”

Scientists agree that she has a reason to be concerned, even though there isn’t much data available yet on teens.

David Meyer, a researcher at the University of Michigan, spent the last few decades studying multitasking in adults.

“For tasks that are at all complicated, no matter how good you have become at multitasking, you’re still going to suffer hits against your performance. You will be worse compared to if you were actually concentrating from start to finish on the task,” Meyer states.

Performing several activities simultaneously can cause a kind of power outage in the brain. Meyer says the lights dim due to the lack of enough power to go around.

So, the brain starts closing up shop on things like neural links to essential information.

When Alex sends an online message, his brain begins forgetting the connections it was using for his homework.

To re-establish the lost connections, Meyer adds, Alex must duplicate his thought processes that produced them in the first place.

The technical term for producing, or reproducing the neural pathways is called “spreading activation.” Meyer says it’s comparable to what happens when we free associate.

“I say to you, ‘What do you think of when I say the word apple to you?’ And you start vibing on apple. ‘Oh, apple’s a fruit; it fell on Newton’s head. Newton was a physicist. He invented the first theory of gravity.’ And on and on,” Meyer says.

So when we’re interrupted by something, it can take seconds or hours to replicate the lost thoughts.

“It goes on subconsciously and eventually, if I’m lucky, I get back up to speed with what I was thinking about before,” Meyer states.

Alex still states that, in some ways, multitasking allows him to stay attentive, like when he listens to music while solving a math problem.

“If I have only one thing, I drift off a little bit,” Alex says. “But if there’s something else going on in the background that I can just sort of block out, I feel like I can concentrate on something more “” whereas if I’m only doing one thing, it’s harder for me to concentrate.”

Studies do show that it’s very simple to keep music in the background while focusing on something else. However, when an event occurs in the background that forces itself into your awareness, you tend to get distracted. Think about when your computer announces: “You’ve got mail.”

“Everybody does get distracted by it. But most people learn to get used to that distraction and when to say ‘no, I’ve got to work, and I’m not going to give into this,” Alex’s friend, Zach says.

Allowing distractions not to affect you depends on being able to manage your impulses. This is something that is not completely developed in a teenager’s brain.

Alex does admit that it’s not an easy for him at times. He says it’s difficult to fully concentrate on any one thing when it’s normal for you to navigate a computer screen full of options.

“You’re teaching yourself to give 10 percent to each little icon. And then click away when there’s a moment’s pause,” Alex says.

Additionally, Meyer says that our brains can get addicted to where “they literally need a fix of multitasking.”

This is not a heavily researched topic. Regardless, Meyer compares it to playing video games or skydiving: We get an adrenaline rush from the novelty and variety.

Naturally, when you have something to lose, multitasking becomes incredibly stressful.

“The brain areas that you would see light up and the biochemicals, the neurotransmitters that would be getting released would be quite different if I was an air traffic controller trying to land a whole bunch of planes at La Guardia Airport or wherever. I wouldn’t be having pleasure then,” Meyers says.

For teenagers like Zach and Alex, the practice of multitasking is somewhere between the rush of skydiving and the apprehension of landing a plane. At any rate, Alex states, it’s what they know how to do.

“Even for me right now “” and I haven’t been exposed to it that long “” it’s already natural to multitask in these ways,” Alex says. “Like your will is, your heart is in that place where you are just wanting to multitask, and you’re conditioned to it. That’s how you’re going to keep going.”

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