Digital Distractions – the Myth of Multitasking.

It seems like hardly a month goes by without at least one of my students asking if they can listen to music while they are working on a task in class.  My answer is always the same: “No”. And then invariably come the protests (mostly mild, thankfully). The protests are almost always the same: Don’t I know that it has been “proven” that listening to music while studying increases learning and retention.   

Unfortunately for my students (and for me as well, as I love listening to music too!) this myth has been soundly debunked by numerous studies.  This myth can be traced back to a 1993 paper in the scientific and peer-reviewed journal Nature, in which researchers reported that college students performed better at spatial reasoning tasks after having listened to music composed by Mozart.  The findings were very specific in the nature of the tasks being assessed, and the effect on cognition was reported as temporary, lasting about 15 minutes.  

The media widely reported a different story, taking the findings to mean that listening to Mozart will make you smarter.  This message spread like wildfire among the population, and I too believed it for many years as well, having heard it many times from people.  Any over time it morphed from very specific findings (i.e. – listening to ONE composer’s works, BEFORE a SPATIAL cognitive task led to TEMPORARY improvements in performance) to what many of my students now apparently believe – that listening to ANY music, WHILE studying/working/creating will increase performance/retention PERMANENTLY, for ANY task.


Citing research (here, here, here, etc.) to debunk myths is one of my hobbies, however, this doesn’t make me very popular with students (or adults either for that matter).  

But this anecdotal story brings me to what I really want to write about here – multitasking, and how it relates to addictive technology in general.  Without trying to sound too much like the old-time “back in my day” teacher on a soapbox, I do feel disturbed at the amount of “multitasking” that my students seem to engage in.  I notice that their attention spans seem to be shrinking every year, and I am becoming increasingly concerned as a teacher. I am not going to absolve myself from this observation – I can clearly notice that my own attention span has decreased as well over the past decade or so.  (Have you noticed the same in yourself?)

I put multitasking in quotes in the paragraph above, because it is essentially a myth.  True multitasking doesn’t happen, simply because the human brain really can’t handle doing two things at the same time.  Multitasking is really a very poor descriptor for what is actually happening in the brain. What we experience as the sensation of doing two or more things at once is simply the brain switching very rapidly between one task and another. Hank Green, creator at YouTube’s Crash Course and SciShow channels, explains in the video below.  

There is ample evidence that demonstrates that multitasking is indeed a myth, and is not a benign habit.  Multitasking actually causes people to make MORE mistakes, and multitaskers incur higher cognitive costs, even as they feel like they are being more productive. The World Economic Forum has even weighed in on the multitasking myth.

But where does this urge to multitask come from?  The desire to do more in less time is certainly not new, but we were previously limited in what we could accomplish.  But with our current smartphones, we can write emails before a meeting, check a website during a conversation, like a friend’s photo as we make coffee in the morning (I did this today), etc.  Being able to do all of this so quickly and easily makes us feel more productive. Is this a happy accident in how our phones and apps are designed. No. It is no coincidence, and has to do with how these devices and programs are explicitly designed.  

I am old enough to remember quite clearly life pre-internet, and pre-smartphone.  I can remember not feeling pulled every few minutes by the thought of what might be happening on social media, the news, or what memes are trending right now.  Maybe this is why I seem to view the encroachment of technology on our lives with a bit of apprehension – those in my generation and older can still remember the difference.  Even if I still feel I too am falling victim to the multitasking myth (and indeed, I do feel that I am, like so many of us) I can’t help but imagine that it is much more acute for my students.   

My middle and high school students have never lived without the internet, and have spent most of their formative years so far in an age of hyper-connectivity.  Many students at my school (based on anecdotal evidence from conversations with parents) have smartphones by the time they enter middle school in grade 6. Managing technological distractions is difficult enough for adults, and children or teenagers have even less cognitive control to manage them.  These devices, and the apps that run on them, are explicitly designed to be addictive.  I wonder if, in the future, society will look back at our unrestrained and unregulated use of connective technology the same way that we look back on smoking in the early 20th century.  (Harmless! Everyone is doing it!)

(Alone together – a common scene these days.  Photo shared under Creative Commons Licence:

Many prominent people in the tech industry are beginning to sound the alarm.  Tristan Harris, ex-Google design ethicist, has started a non-profit Center for Humane Technology, to help raise awareness about the addictive nature of our devices.  His TED talk highlights both the problems of, and potential solutions to, runaway addictive technology.  

Just about every student these days tries to study and learn while streaming audio, keeping a Facebook tab open on the browser, having a phone nearby, etc.  My concern for how this is affecting learning is not unwarranted, and has been backed up by research. Marianne Stenger has written about how multitasking affects learners.  In her post, she is very clear:  “Studies that have looked at how multitasking affects the brain’s learning systems show that learning is less flexible and more specialized when a person is multitasking, which makes it more difficult to retrieve the information later down the line.  Moreover, recent research has shown that multitasking affects not only the learning ability of the ‘multi-taskers’ but also that of those around them.”

I don’t want to come across here as anti-tech.  I don’t want to go back to the pre-internet world – I find there are far too many benefits that outweigh the negatives.  I fully understand that connections can be a wonderful tool for learning. I wouldn’t be part of this COETAIL experience if I didn’t believe that technology holds some incredible benefits for teaching and learning.  However, I am also starting to believe that we may have to become more mindful as a society about how this powerful technology is deployed and used. A metaphor I heard recently: The automobile was a society-revolutionizing invention, and it came with many benefits.  However, we also understand that an automobile used recklessly is a dangerous thing. I think our digital technology can be put in this category.

I’d like to leave you with this TED talk, in which ex-Stanford University Professor Clifford Nass asks the question:  Are You Multitasking Your Life Away? A good question for all of us to ponder.

Thanks for reading this post.  Have you also noticed your own attention span changed a bit in the past decade?  Do you have a habit of checking social media more often than you are comfortable with?  Do you try to get more done by multitasking? (I can answer “yes” to all three questions, btw.)  Most importantly, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how this is affecting teaching and learning! Please leave a comment below.  Thanks again!


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