Counseling and Neurofeedback
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Board-Certifed in Neurofeedback

Does Multitasking Lower Your IQ? [Stanford Study]

Multitasking and teens…

multitasking and studentsMy client Josh sits in front of his computer after school, working on an essay for his history class. He stops for a minute to answer a text from a friend asking if he has the night’s math homework. In between sentences, he answers email, adds some music files to iTunes, checks a friends photo on Instagram, and glances at Facebook.

Multitasking has become part of doing homework, and students like Josh are reluctant to give it up. It feels necessary, and efficient.

Here are some of the reasons teens give for staying connected while they’re doing homework:

  • My teacher says I have to do this on Google Docs.
  • I don’t understand this math problem and my friend is helping me.
  • We’re planning our group project.

All good reasons.

Teens growing up in the media age say they have plenty of attention to go around. So is multitasking hurting your student’s performance, or is it simply a new way of life?

Chasing Rabbits

There’s a Russian proverb that says, “If you chase two rabbits, you will catch neither.”

While teens are proud of their ability to multitask, many teens also say they have trouble focusing.  And when students have a lot of trouble focusing, they often get diagnosed with ADD. In fact, ADD is defined as as difficulty focusing.  Interestingly, diagnoses of ADD have gone up 48% in the past 8 years.

Here’s thing: “focus” is misunderstood. Focus isn’t about your ability to keep your mind from wandering. Wandering is what minds naturally do.

Focus is really about saying no.

Focus is about saying no to the 17 other fascinating, boring, outrageous, and worrisome things demanding your attention right now. Distractions are everywhere: social media, texts from friends, interesting conversations in the next room, even parents stopping by with a quick question.

When you can’t say no, here’s what happens: Josh knows his math homework should take about 30 minutes. It takes him an hour. He thinks the essay he’s working needs about 3 hours of after school time. He finishes in 8.

The Stanford Study

In one study at Stanford University, 100 students were given 3 tests to assess their multitasking ability. Here’s what the study found:

  • The “best” multitaskers were the least able to filter out irrelevant information as they worked.
  • The best multitaskers had the worst working memory – significantly worse than students in the control group of low multitaskers.
  • In a test situation, their memory got worse as time went on. They couldn’t hold enough information in their working memory to solve straightforward problems.
  • High multitaskers were more easily distracted – much more easily – than low multitaskers.
  • Finally, the most experienced multitaskers weren’t even very good at multitasking. When students in the control group were asked to switch back and forth between several specific tasks, they eventually finished the tasks. The high multitaskers couldn’t do it. Their attention shifted so often that they didn’t finish any of the several tasks.

As one of the study’s two investigators said, “We kept looking for what [multitaskers] are better at, and we didn’t find it.”

More Research on Multitasking

Other studies found similar results:

  • A study done for Hewlett-Packard found that multitasking led to an apparent IQ drop of about 15 points. This is equivalent to an adult’s IQ score dropping to the level of an 8 year old, and similar to what you’d find if the adult had stayed up all night or been smoking marijuana.
  • The University of Sussex found that multitasking affects the density of brain cells in a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, which has to do with mental and emotional regulation.
  • In a related study at UC Irvine, researchers found that when office workers switched tasks, they took an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task. Not only did multitasking cost huge amounts of time, but also it significantly affected memory and ability to learn.

Russell Poldrack at UCLA says, “Humans…[are] built to focus. And when we…force ourselves to multitask, we’re driving ourselves to be less efficient in the long run even though it sometimes feels like we’re being more efficient.” [emphasis mine]

Set an Example

Multitasking is clearly a problem. So how do you help your teen learn to focus?

First, take a look at your own multitasking. Do you do often…

  • Answer your phone during dinner?
  • Watch TV in the bedroom at night?
  • Eat while driving?
  • Text during meetings?

If you’re like many of the parents I talk with, you probably do something like this on occasion. But when multitasking becomes a habit, it’s time to make a change. And often the first step in changing someone else’s behavior is changing one’s own.

Gather Data

This 6 minute video that will give you (or your teen) a sense of how multitasking really affects your brain. The presenter is speaking to entrepreneurs (and is a little excited for my taste), but the exercise is a good one and is applicable to everyone.

When you’re finished, make a few notes about the results. How does multitasking affect…

  • your time?
  • the quality of your work?
  • your stress level?

Catching the Rabbit

Multitasking feels efficient. But as the studies show, the efficiency is an illusion.

Focus isn’t about your ability to concentrate. It’s about your ability to say “No” to the dozens of distractions becoming for your attention.

What if Josh said “No” for just 20 minutes to Instagram, email, and iTunes…and finished his math homework in record time?

What if he said No to responding texts for just three 60-minute blocks of time…and finished his essay in 3 hours instead of 8? He’d not only learn the material better, but he’d have even more time for Instagram.

What if you thought of focusing  as a skill? What if the instead of making a diagnosis, we strategize about how limit multitasking and improve focus?

Focus is a skill, and you can learn it. Like any skill, it takes time and practice. And learning to focus means spending time, every day, doing just one thing.

You’ll be surprised at the difference this can make in just a couple of weeks. You’ll lean more, remember more, and get more done. Remember, if you see two rabbits and decide to follow just one…you’ll probably catch it.