The PBS public affairs series Frontline recently aired, Distracted by Everything, the first episode in digital_nation – life on the virtual frontier about multitasking.

Henry Jenkins has a word of warning about the program though, he suggests the documentary ‘panders to the biases’ of viewers. His analysis of how students multitask is important and comments about the dangers of envisaging a ‘national norm’ sage.

My own position on multitasking depends, of course, on context.

Personally, if I really need to complete a task quickly, and well, it is best to focus on the job at hand. I rarely do this though. Usually, I multitask. Word processing, email, twitter, Facebook, the kids, my partner, music, iPhone, occasionally tv in the mix too. Basically, it makes life more pleasant. I ‘work’ on several things at once. I am listening to the end of the documentary as I type now – and tweeting.

I use my iPhone in meetings and while at conferences but put it aside when I really need to concentrate or etiquette demands. I find the (hyper)connectivity makes me feel happy.

In my classes, students are not permitted to listen to music or use their phones. It is a simple rule. Students compose, discuss, listen, create, read, collaborate, present, synthsesise, analyse, evaluate and laugh. We usually have internet access. They are free to listen to music in their own time and multitask all they want and often, other teachers permit this in their classes too but I have felt for many years that we can do without this in my English class. We need to concentrate!


Personally, I prefer to read a novel in quiet but that is for my own enjoyment more than anything else. I used to always play music reading but not anymore. Often though, I have a break and use my iPhone to check twitter, Facebook and email – or look something up.

Screenshot from the documentary

The conclusion, increasingly being reached, maybe simplistically, is that multistaskers are bad at multitasking. Read more here and here. However, I suspect that, like most things, it is in the balance.

Your views on multitasking?



  1. I think it is important to reflect on the deep seeded psychological need to separate ‘young people’ by adults, in which technology is the new tool driving this divide (don’t ask me why just look at the history). The PBS video is filtered with ‘them’, ‘they’, ‘we’ and ‘u’s yet we all have the same DNA? What creates this ‘them’, ‘they’ and ‘us’? I contend it occurs on many levels; social, psychological and most noticeably in neuro-plasticity. Essentially we have each grown up in different environment, yet the biggest mistake we can make is to apply our world view in making assumptions of others.

    We grew up in a liner environment, the closest we came to ‘multitasking’ was reading a newspaper and watching TV. However these was never even close to multitasking because the neurological load of both were so (relatively large that they could not be performed simultaneously or even switched between without almost rewiring. Remember TV for us was new, exciting & emotional combined with prolonged complex story lines and few advertisements, a Newspaper opened a whole new world, it had similar effect to a novel, it was rich and engrossing. The reason adults like the iPhone is because it doesn’t multitask, if it did they would get lost and confused and blame the device, just ask a Windows Mobile user)

    Young people today have grown up in an increasingly non-linear environment. Comprised of a totally different media landscape, it is consumed in a fundamentaly different way. The media is quick punchy and bit sized, it use emotional triggers in even the most low level of advertising (FMCGs like fabric softener and nappies) and it requires far less intellectual and emotional engagement. The devices we experience the information and media through are constructed to enable channel surfing, facilitated by integrating marketing strategies that encourage purchase of multiple media streams (the profit is in the media not the console)

    So what does this mean for multitasking?
    1. The media and device environment lends itself to bite-sized consumption
    2. We are being increasingly emotionally attacked by modern media in an effort to engage us in a nappie commercial resulting in it being harder to engage emotionally in a 2hr love story
    3. Our brains were wired in different media landscapes
    4. Our choice of devices has enabled a multitasking environment (encouraged by marketeers)

    What is multitasking? Theoretically it is doing multiple significant tasks at once, but the most respected cognitive theory will tell you this is actually impossible on a pure neuro-chemical level. You can rub your belly well, rub your head well or do both half heatedly, however practice both for many years till autonomous and you can (see Martin Westwell et all for the research on this). If we ever chat I tell you about what multitasking looks like in an environment of fear (Base Jumping, Big River paddling, etc all very interesting psychological environments to reflect on how the neurology copes with multiple streams of cognitive demanding information). What we can do is “switch”, switching is simply jumping from task to task. Do young people switch better? Well yes and no here are the issues:
    1. People who grew up in the modern media environment and get less attached and hence can depart quicker. Versus. People who grew up in the older media environment tend to become more emotionally attached (habit) and even when detached will still reflect
    2. People who grew up in the modern environment can revisit the media, it doesn’t disappear in the rubbish or stop at 8:30pm hence demand for no longer required. Versus. People who grew up in an environment where the only way to warehouse information or media was to remember it.
    3. It is all a matter of what your’re switching between is the task neuro-intensive (new, emotional exciting) or neuro-irrelevant (old, automatic and boring).

    Darcy I certainly agree your views that young people do not switch (multitask well) but that is from your world view. A young person’s world view is they don’t need to engage in the media as you do because the environment has no requirement for it. You can skim and return on demand, I would suggest skimming has an competitive advantage as it allows a greater catalogue of knowledge scaffolds on which to build deep knowledge on demand with cataloged media.

    The real issue is many tasks which from our world view are neuro-intensive are for young people increasingly neuro-irrelevant. Hence why so many disengaged students, the teaching methods our teachers used and we now torture young people with in this modern information/media age are actually quite neuro-irrlevant, they have already skimmed and participated.

    The above rambling in four points
    1. No such thing as multitasking only switching
    2. Young people switch better due to a combination of neuro-plasticity, media trends and modern devices
    3. There is no longer a need to deep engage in modern media
    4. The view they young people don’t switch properly is based on our world view of how media should be consumed

    Note: This will all come undone the day a nuclear explosion wipes all digital media clean, wonder how many remember the movie “Until the end of the world” and know to go look for a crank start diesel…..

    • darcymoore

    • 14 years ago

    You now officially hold the record, at my blog, for the longest ever comment. Thank you Ben, I appreciate your time and insights!

    I find myself nodding about the ‘them’ and ‘us’ binary in the program and agree with Jenkins about the populist limitations of the framing and analysis.

    However, I am not so much of a relativist to think that students can be poor at multitasking but only from an adult POV, not theirs. The idea that this is true as their is limited relevance to them re: the way adults perceive media consumption anyway, seems flawed, if the argument is that multitasking leads to all tasks being completed less well. Lets face it, many tasks do not need to be completed well, we do it for fun or because we have too. BTW I am more likely to be skimming and scanning in my life too (thinking of Google Reader).

    I suspect the multitasking issue is, as I suggest in the post, one to to do with balance and context. One needs to know when it is the best strategy to ‘switch’ or ‘focus’ more singularly on one task. The nature of the HSC is the main reason why I make my Y12 class follow the strict rules in the classroom. As you know, I am an advocate of a changed, more, for lack of another expression, relevant 21st century assessment requirement in our schools. That is not the context I work or the kids learn. We discuss this in class. They understand and concur. ‘It’s reality, Sir!’

    My responses to your summary:

    1. I think multitasking is switching and see no real distinction needing to be made.
    2. ‘Young people’ is too general. Some of them are not good, compared to their peers, at multitasking and some adults, who have grown old(er) with technological change are brilliant at it. Neuroplasticity, as a concept, means that my brain can continue to develop and change and form new connections until the end of life. Depends on how one uses it.
    3. But there is a need to engage deeply in reflection and thinking about our challenges – political, environmental, social and historical. The ephemeral, enjoyable nature of the media times we live in is only one aspect of thought and communication.
    4. I am happy for media to be consumed in the way you suggest and the way youth and I do. I think some of the Professors on the program were suggesting that deeper, more reflective thought is needed in some spheres of study and life. Who could disagree?

    In short, my position, choose the behaviour most likely to bring success and happiness, knowledge and sustainabilty.

    Know thyself!

    • Tony Coleman

    • 14 years ago

    Darcy , this is the short reply.
    Ben, I was very impressed with your post. I like the term neuro – irrelevant.
    The more people I talk to about the challenges for schools in the 21st century the more the word ‘irrelevant’ is applied. Can we stop school from becoming increasingly irrelevant for our students.
    The Laptops are a great start but we will need to do more to become relevant in the lives of our students.
    What do we need to do to remain places of learning for our students?
    Unless we find answers to these questions it is my view that schools will become compulsory irrelevant distractions that young people are forced to attend.
    A young Year 7 student once blurted in frustration to me ‘you can’t make me learn” It is sad but true, we can force students, legally, to stay at school until 17, but no law can force them to learn.
    Lets hope we are up for the challenge – to inspire and motivate our young people to participate voluntarily in school life.

  2. Darcy
    “In short, my position, choose the behaviour most likely to bring success and happiness, knowledge and sustainabilty.”

    here here 🙂

    too short????

    • Troy

    • 14 years ago

    Nah, Ben, not too short. As I listen to the cricket, sip tea, watch the tweets and ponder ‘Tall Man’ by Chole Hopper. Everyone does multitask, there are major differences in if we realise or actively attempt to or that if we are passive in our actions. I keep coming back to the generational gap I see as a constant knot in my context as a classroom teacher. I enjoy linear, but realise life is no longer linear for most people. Knowledge and understanding are fluid chains that come when we hope to “inspire and motivate our young people to participate voluntarily in school life.”

    • darcymoore

    • 14 years ago


    Shortest ‘poem’ in the English language. The poet? You’ll never guess…but I love how it says so much!

    • darcymoore

    • 14 years ago


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