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Multitasking: a state of continuous partial attention

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Put down your tablet or phone and mute the TV—just for a minute—to mark the passing of Clifford Nass. Who? Nass, who died last month, was a Stanford professor of communications and was among the first academics to study multitasking.

In pioneering work, Nass showed that, when multitasking, people are not really performing well on any of the tasks they are doing. A finite amount of attention and mental energy is being split between several competing streams of stimulation and information. The result, as Lee Rainie of the Pew Internet and American Life Project calls it, is a “state of continuous partial attention” and less proficiency at any given task.

This was not what Nass was expecting when he began. He thought multitaskers would be really adept at managing information and activities but found, instead, that they’re lousy at every phase of multitasking: ignoring irrelevant information, keeping information organized in their head, making connections and, perhaps most surprising, at actually moving between tasks. And they wind up not very good at concentrating on one thing for any length of time. Those findings have implications for later success in academic, business, and civic life.

But it is hard to convince people that multitasking can be a problem. In his tests at Stanford, Nass recruited people who said they were good at multitasking, tested them, and showed them their results. Although the data clearly showed the test subjects they were not performing well, they remained convinced that multitasking made them more effective and efficient, that there was no downside to multitasking.

Modern technology, media, and connectivity bring unimaginable riches of information and entertainment to us but, like in so many areas of life, balance is important. In honor of Clifford Nass, have a family conversation about where multitasking is appropriate and where it’s not. Set some ground rules together. That’s a great opportunity to explore the role of technology in all of our lives and establish some balance.

So go ahead and watch your favorite TV show and use your phone or tablet to chat about with your friends about it. Then power down and have a conversation over dinner, go outside and play, or read a book.


Frank Gallagher is Executive Director of Cable in the Classroom (CIC), the education foundation of the cable telecommunications industry. He is a specialist in media and information literacy, internet safety, digital citizenship, and the impact of media on children and is a former middle school math teacher. Image Credit: NCTA from Think Stock/Getty Images.

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Categories: Balancing Screen Time, Educational Issues

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