There's no question that for both kids and adults, our attention is divided. Texts, emails, Twitter, Facebook are all chiming, ringing, beeping, and chirping for our attention.
How does this affect kids? The media has covered the subject in terms of fear of multitasking leading to ADD, losing control to digital devices, and the dangers of not being able to focus. And in most cases, the Internet (and technology in general) has been declared the culprit.
But rather than blaming the medium, David Levy, author of Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age, and a professor at the Information School at the University of Washington, believes the challenges of multitasking present us with an opportunity to take control of the situation, starting at a young age.
"We're led to believe that we're victims and we don't have a choice in the matter and it's the Internet's fault," Levy said at the Innovative Learning Conference last week. "But the problem is bigger than technology."
Levy cited a 2009 Stanford study, Impacts of Media Multitasking on Children's Learning and Development [PDF], which concluded that schools have yet to meet the challenge of dealing with stretched attention that media multitasking requires. USC Professor Henry Jenkins, author of multiple books on media and pop culture, has also emphasized the importance of teaching multitasking as a skill.
Levy's proposal to parents and to the education system: Teach the tools that will teach kids to focus, avoid distraction, and judge what to pay attention to as they're exposed to a slew of diversions. It's a matter of training the brain.
"We need a culture of education that teaches these kinds of skills," he said.
Levy recently completed a study on mindfulness training, testing the ability to narrow or widen the mind's focus at will -- whether to focus on one thing or survey the larger scene. The results were not surprising: the group that received meditation training was far less stressed than those who didn't after completing a highly stressful 20-minute multitasking exercise during which they were asked to deal with simultaneous demands like instant messages, alarms, phone calls, texts, and people asking them questions.
Those taught to meditate showed longer periods of time on specific tasks. "Something about their training caused them to change their strategy," Levy said. "They decided to focus on tasks and ignore what they thought wasn't important."
The meditators said they practiced the breathing they'd learned and listened to the little voice in their head saying "slow down." They focused on the immediate experience and less on their evaluation. "They realized they didn’t have to respond to everything right away, not everything is urgent," Levy said. "They felt more in control, less tense, less afraid."
Attention is like a muscle that needs to be trained. If the muscle is untrained, the mind wanders all over the place all day long. The same thing applies to any skill -- it takes practice. Media multitasking involves the ability to attend to something and to make a decision. Part of what kids should learn is that they can make a choice.
"When they get a text, they could ignore it, or have a look at it to see if it’s important, then come back to it later if they need to," he said. "But for a lot of people, they don't have the strength of mind to ignore the text."
The key is choice. Training the mind gives the mind more choice about what it’ll do, and make more skillful choices. Rather than assuming that kids will figure this out on their own, Levy said we "need to be talking to young people about it."
For more information and reference, Levy suggests: