Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - June 24, 2011

On Deadline: Is 'technomultitasking' hurting our kids emotionally? Our society?

by Jay Thorwaldson

Young persons who are heavy multitaskers seem to lose the ability to multitask efficiently over time, a Kaiser Family Foundation/Stanford University study disclosed last year. It got lots of media attention.

But much of the media reporting focused on the impacts on college students.

Lesser reported were studies of younger persons who — with the aid of a Brave New World of techno devices of all shapes and sizes and functions — are constantly engaged in doing several things at once, from homework to games to chatting and otherwise staying connected.

The findings show deeper or broader effects than just losing multitasking capabilities. The studies of high school students and 8- to 12-year-olds showed an increased level of emotional stress — perhaps distress is a better term — than kids less plugged in.

There are even deeper implications in the rapid and ubiquitous adoption of always-on devices. Those include a shallower level of communicating, loss of ability to concentrate on one item and loss of value placed on face-to-face (ftf in current shorthand) connections.

The pattern might also result in a reduced ability to collaborate to address common problems. Should there be a study of state and national legislators' multitasking patterns?

Multitasking is not new. For decades, parents and kids have argued about listening to music or watching a movie or TV program while studying. Evidence is overwhelming that people of all ages seem to have shorter attention spans these days — or maybe that's just the way us older folks remember things.

The multitasking topic came up again at a recent conference on "Innovation Journalism" held at Stanford University. That term seems to cover both aspects of a vast change in how people absorb information and how they share it, whether or not they are actual journalists.

Clifford Nass, a Stanford professor of communications and the social implications of technology, headed a panel on whether constant connectivity is positive or negative, promising or just plain "scary," or all of the above. Either way, it's a reality, he noted.

"Since the 1890s there has been a steady growth in time spent with media," he said, referring to the evolution of newspapers, radio, movies, television and finally the Internet and a plethora of communication devices.

But there are phases of engagement. The first "steals time from other media," while the second phase "steals time from non-media." When day planners were popular in the 1980s, they began to overcrowd schedules until many people found they had "no time left" and started double or triple booking their time to get everything done — a significant turning point.

Today's rapid acceleration in media "adds to multiple bookings." There is no sign of it stopping, as witnessed by a dramatic growth in multitasking in college students, high school students and teens.

There's a subtle side effect.

"Because everyone is double- and triple-booked there's no time to fool around," as in past generations. "That's the underlying dynamic." What's the developmental value of fool-around time for a young person? Where is the incentive of boredom, and does one feel it when one is constantly online and distracted?

Nass said a recent study of 8- to 12-year-old girls — the most rapid growth years in social development — showed a correlation between those who use social networking and more social/emotional difficulties. The good news is that more face-to-face communication helped.

He said a "massive study" currently underway is showing the "people are devaluing attention." Students strongly disliked an hour-long lecture and said the lecturer should go point-by-point using PowerPoint or another slide program.

The notion of having to concentrate on one thing to get its meaning is "not the journey" many young persons want to take, he said.

There is also evidence of a decline in the value placed on face-to-face connections, even with highly charged emotional problems. "This has enormous social implications," he said.

"When I was in sociology grad school, we were taught the worst thing society can do to someone is ostracize them. Now I wonder if anyone would notice if they were ostracized," Nass said.

"These cheap, quick interactions — what I call cheap attention — don't seem to be working."

The necessary shallowness of the interactions creates a sense of being "alone together," he said.

Nass said he is concerned enough about the patterns emerging in the continuing studies that he has asked his own daughter to set aside "attention Tuesdays," when she and friends stay away from techno-assisted communication altogether.

The "alone together" social problems sound alarmingly similar to "The Lonely Crowd" phenomenon of the 1950s, where people were together but not truly communicating in any meaningful way.

The shallowness is a bit similar to the "CB craze" of the late 1960s, when "Hi good buddy, what's your 20 (location)?" was a measure of lack-of-depth chatter. But CB radios were a minuscule fraction of today's technological pervasiveness in people's lives.

Watching television together without speaking caused concern in an earlier generation of non-communicators, characterized as "the generation gap."

An underlying question and concern is whether constant but shallow communication inhibits young persons from growing into fully mature adults — as if any of us ever really do.

An underlying theme of Aldous Huxley's classic 1933 "Brave New World" — which I thought was a dirty book when I first stumbled across a paperback copy at age 13 or so — is consumerism, not use of mind-altering SOMA as commonly assumed. The message was that keeping a population in a constant shallow state of instant gratification with non-thinking distractions creates an adolescent hunger that feeds the economy in wondrous ways.

A few years ago a high school intern wrote an article for the Weekly about how young persons were using technology. She came up with a great line: "When I and eight of my friends go to a movie, we have between us more phone lines than the average small business." That was when Instant Messaging (or IM) was the rage. One wonders what Twitter or Facebook might morph into.

The famous quotation behind Huxley's story is, "Oh, brave new world that has such wonders in it."

The challenge of our time is managing our wonders so we control them and their effects rather than being controlled by them and the brave new culture they threaten to create.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com.

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