Teen brains

Multitasking teens may be rewiring their brains, warns a Washington Post story.

It’s homework time and 17-year-old Megan Casady of Silver Spring is ready to study.

She heads down to the basement, turns on MTV and boots up her computer. Over the next half hour, Megan will send about a dozen instant messages discussing the potential for a midweek snow day. She’ll take at least one cellphone call, fire off a couple of text messages, scan Weather.com, volunteer to help with a campus cleanup day at James Hubert Blake High School where she is a senior, post some comments on a friend’s Facebook page and check out the new pom squad pictures another friend has posted on hers.

In between, she’ll define “descent with modification” and explain how “the tree analogy represents the evolutionary relationship of creatures” on a worksheet for her AP biology class.

Call it multitasking homework, Generation ‘Net style.

Some neuroscientists “fear that the penchant for flitting from task to task could have serious consequences on young people’s ability to focus and develop analytical skills.” Developing young brains may get stuck in fast ‘n shallow mode, they fear.

There’s no research. For all we know, multitasking builds fast ‘n flexible thinking.

On Sand in the Gears, Tony Woodlief thinks teen stupidity is spreading because teenagers spend too much time with each other — in person and virtually — and not enough time with adults.

I’m not sure there’s any less adult interaction than in my generation, when teens talked to each other on the phone instead of texting each other. But I loved his intro:

I recently crushed the dreams of about 400 high school students. I was asked to give them career advice, and so I told them to stop believing that they can achieve anything they want simply by wanting it. “I Believe I Can Fly” may be an uplifting song, but it’s a stupid life philosophy. You can’t fly. If you study about ten times harder, and have an ounce of common sense, and work really long hours, then perhaps you can build yourself a plane, and then you can fly. Otherwise, get used to walking.

It was not altogether well-received. I think they are used to being told that they will achieve their dreams, as if dream-achievement is some kind of massive entitlement program, and one is enrolled in it simply by aching for things.

Via Constrained Vision.

About Joanne


  1. I often wonder about that kind of multitasking. In the WaPo example, will she remember “descent with modification” and “the tree analogy” two weeks from now? On the other hand, a 3.85 GPA is probably some indication of success – unless you count the current Texas study that finds courses “more rigorous”, GPAs rising, and standard test scores declining:

    Test scores declining

    On the other hand, what’s wrong with “fast and flexible”? Some occupations call for a large measure of it: NYSE floor-trader, Navy SEALs, policemen, firemen, …

    Woodlief’s quote only illuminates the unfortunate trend in making “self-esteem” independent of anything that really generates self-esteem: basically, learning and achievement. The edu-gurus want self-esteem to come first; but that’s only a balloon that’s going to burst the first week on a real job.

  2. part and parcel of the inaity of ” if you believe it, you can do it” is “at 18 or 22, you know what your “dream” career is”.

    please. to know what you’d love to do, or be passionate about, you’d have to actually experience something. then you’d have to work at it, including all the unpleasant parts, before you matured enough to determine if you really had a drive for it or not.

    this “follow your dream” nonsense definitely creates entitlement. it creates a “why should I work a job I don’t love or is difficult or unpleasant? I quit” mentality. of course, the amswer to why is because until you learn to mnegotiate modern life, to have discipline, to mediate disagreements in expectations, to learn to cooperate woth colleagues or handle disappointment, you will just fail anyway. those skills are learned at every job, and if you quit before you learn the lesson, you’ll just end up at another job where you should habe learned it before.

    the oprahification of america is robbing children and adolscents of learning the value of hard work, discipline, and patience. it deprives them of actually feel satisfaction in their own successes, because it teaches them to quit if they aren’t immediately gratified. they just flit yselessly from dream to dream, unable to succeed at anything.

  3. Well, I’m quite the multi-tasker and have been for ages and ages. If I had to do one thing at a time, I’d never get anything done. And it’s worked well in my career, which I discovered at 30! I wish someone had told me what I was good at and where to do it when I was a lot younger.

    Life is way too short to work at something you’re not good at and that you hate.

  4. Indigo Warrior says:

    this “follow your dream” nonsense definitely creates entitlement. it creates a “why should I work a job I don’t love or is difficult or unpleasant? I quit” mentality.

    Not always. There is a difference between something that is merely unpleasant, and something that is harmful, or wasteful of talent that exists elsewhere. The flip side of the “entitlement” coin is the “daddy was a blacksmith, grand-dad was a blacksmith, so what choice do I have” side.

  5. And if Megan’s trying to write a paper while she’s doing this, she’ll be turning in an unorganized, incoherent piece of drivel, and I’ll be able to locate every place where she stopped writing to answer an IM, and then returned to the paper without bothering to integrate her post-IM thoughts into her pre-IM thoughts.

  6. Maybe the multi-tasking works fine for Megan; maybe it prevents her from concentrating. How about if the Post follows up in a couple of months when she gets her AP test grades and let’s us know how she did?

  7. GradSchoolMom says:

    The truth is that we don’t know what skills will be most valuable in 20 years. We understand that some things don’t change: The most motivated will succeed; Quitters will not. Life is hard and change is inevitable. Multi-tasking and gaming skills will become important qualities to have because the next generation values them highly. They are the traits that define them. They are the skills that they can outperform any Baby Boomer in. They will slowly implement them into the world of business and push the older generation into retirement because they can no longer keep up. It is called the circle of life. We don’t understand our teens’ decisions and we don’t agree with their choices. They refuse to listen to our wisdom and roll their eyes in disgust at our guidance. They are taking the time to understand their peers and find their place within that world. Imagine where you would be today if you had copied and listened to all the advice your parents gave you. They really were clueless about the skills needed for today’s world.

  8. Mr. Robinson says:

    I’ve got one word for you – plastics!

  9. “Imagine where you would be today if you had copied and listened to all the advice your parents gave you. They really were clueless about the skills needed for today’s world”…really? Hard work, determination, keeping a sense of humor, a love of knowledge, the ability to read, write, and speak effectively, integrity in dealing with others…there were a lot of parents imparting these skills/metaskills to their children in 1800, and they are totally relevant in almost every job I can think of today.

    What specifically as the “skills needed for today’s world” about which you believe parents were clueless?

  10. What a great quote from Tony Woodlief….I’m going to link to it later this week.

  11. GradSchoolMom says:

    PHOTOCOURIER, I certainly didn’t say that you should not listen to anything that your parents said. Most of the items that you mentioned are very important and I hope parents continue to give advice. However, if I had decided to listen to ALL their work advise, I would have invested my time into learning shorthand and been looking for a job after High School that offered a good pension. My parents had no idea how computerized things would become, that factories would be closing and jobs outsourced or that so many people would be “let go” after spending a long career in a stable job because the CEO embezzled their retirement funds. They would have told me that staying loyal to a company was much more important for success than learning a computer language. Technology is definitely changing how our children think and learn. I simply believe that the next generation will survive and prosper, but in a different way than we did.

  12. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Amen, Mom. I grew up in Sacramento where the way was to get a good civil serice job and ride it off into the sunset, My Dad, a railroad man, lived for seniority. When I left a job after seven years he almost cried. I explained that for engineers, your seniority was only as good as your performance on your next project. That company and the next two I worked for no longer exist. I do wish I had learned to type, however.

  13. If I had to choose skills for future workers, gaming skills and IM skills (whatever those may be) would not make the list. I have heard suburban moms utter the absolute conviction that the video game obsessed teenagers of today will rule the world of tomorrow.

    Sorry. That’s a pipe dream. If they’re lucky, they’ll be night watchmen for the labs headed by immigrants from Asia.

    I believe that current electronic entertainment is culling the ranks of the workers of tomorrow, in a Darwinian way. Those who have the discipline to build the academic skills they’ll need, which include literacy, numeracy, and the willingness to work hard, will do fine.

  14. Julia–Korea is the most video game obsessed nation on earth, followed by Japan, and China is closing in. Who do you think makes video games?

  15. Indigo Warrior says:

    I think what GradSchoolMom meant was that the specific career advice of parents and older generations is not always that useful. Blacksmith? Wheelwright? Civil servant? Salaryman? And the future is impossible to predict and often goes in directions unforeseen by experts. For example, I really should have spend more time typing, and public speaking – and less time hanging from the ceiling in anticipation of a life on a zero-gee L5 space colony.

    Hard work and determination, and the like will always be useful. And following your dream and natural talents, which will require a good deal of hard work, etc.

  16. Indigo Warrior says:

    Julia K:
    If I had to choose skills for future workers, gaming skills and IM skills (whatever those may be) would not make the list. I have heard suburban moms utter the absolute conviction that the video game obsessed teenagers of today will rule the world of tomorrow.

    I would personally promote role-playing game skills and demote video game skills.

  17. KateCoe: And your point is? Which positive qualities, in particular, are you attributing to the consumption of video game entertainment products?

    The countries you name also have very competitive university entrance exams, which mercilessly shut out the unprepared from future study. They also have the cram school culture, which extend the hours devoted to schoolwork. They also have cultures which value education and hard work. (I have assumed that you meant South Korea when you listed “Korea”.)


  1. […] Joanne Jacobs reports on a recent Washington Post story which claims that multitasking (sending instant, text and electronic messages, surfing the web and listening to music while studying/doing homework) may negatively impact a teen’s ability to focus and develop analytical skills. Further research is necessary to determine whether multitasking helps (does it foster flexible thinking?), hinders (is it breeding a generation of superficial thinkers) or is harmless to a teen. […]