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Editorial: Divided Attention; The Hazards of Multitasking

There’s a good chance that you’re reading this while also doing other things, like checking email or posting a comment on Facebook. As it happens, this editorial made its way to the page in spite of Instagram alerts, online Scrabble moves and the distraction of electronic news bulletins. That’s appropriate, given that we’re writing today about the implications of multitasking in a digital age.

The topic comes to our divided attention for three reasons. The first is a recent report by the American Academy of Pediatrics warning about the overuse of media devices by young children. The second is the death, last week, of Stanford professor Clifford Nass, whose research led to some disturbing conclusions about how digital technology affects the brain and social interaction. The third is the inescapable observation that device-in-hand multitasking has become a way of life.

The pediatrics association reports that the typical 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly eight hours a day with a variety of media, and that doesn’t mean with crayons and poster paint. It means with TV, cell phones, iPads and laptops, all de­­­­vices with screens. Older children spend more than 11 hours a day with such devices. Young people now occupy more of their time with digital media — watching TV, sending text messages, playing video games and communicating through online social networks — than with any other activity, except sleeping.

Children’s digital habits led the nation’s pediatricians to repeat their warnings about the potentially harmful effects of too much “screen time” on young children. Research suggests that digital devices can delay language acquisition, as well as adversely affect cognitive and emotional development. Every hour a child under 2 spends in front of a screen is less time he or she interacts with a parent, and less time for creative and imaginative play, said the association, which recommended that parents strictly limit their young children’s access to TVs, computers and cell phones.

Turns out that human-to-human interaction is beneficial not only for babies and toddlers but also for teenagers and grown-ups, as sociologist Clifford Nass helped to demonstrate. One of his most publicized research projects was a 2009 study in which he and his fellow investigators at Stanford University discovered that the most determined multitaskers — that is to say, most college students — were bad at concentrating, unable to analyze ideas and lacked empathy for others.

“Multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking,” Nass told the PBS program Frontline. “They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized; and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another.” Nass was hardly the only one to point to the dangers of overexposure to digital devices. MIT’s Sherry Turkle, for example, has also written extensively about the dehumanizing aspects of social media. But as the director of Stanford’s Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab, Nass was a creature of the digital media world. It’s therefore noteworthy that he was alarmed by what he observed about the interplay between man and digital machine. He feared that multitasking would create “people unable to think well and clearly.” This is not an idle fear. While every revolution creates disruptions and disturbances, transforming social behavior, the digital revolution appears to be altering not only human interaction but quite possibly human cognition as well. That’s something to really think about, preferably without a computer on your lap.