Plugged in all the time: Is it good for you?

October 29, 2006|By Kevin Coughlin | Kevin Coughlin,Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.

Nina Ahuja has a winning smile, three screen names and 300 buddies on her AOL Instant Messenger list.

On a typical school night, she does her homework with the Style Network playing on TV and Missy Elliott rapping from her iPod mini. A barrage of instant messages and mobile phone calls punctuates the cacophony.

The only thing that jars her is the thought of unplugging anything - even for a day.

"I'd probably go crazy. I'd be mentally unstable," says Nina, 16. An AIM user since the second grade, she has been glued to a cell phone for four years and barely scrapes by on 1,000 minutes of talk time per month.

Her dad, computer scientist Sid Ahuja, rolls his eyes. What can he say? He helped hatch some of this technology at Bell Labs. And Nina, a talented dancer, gets top grades at a Monmouth County, N.J., high school.

Nearly a third of kids in grades three through 12 regularly multitask while doing homework, according to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

What does this fractured focus mean long-range?

Small studies suggest distractions impair learning. Yet scores on IQ tests keep rising, and author Steven Johnson credits pop culture. Juggling communications and making sense of software, chaotic video games and fast-paced, ambiguous movies (Memento) and TV shows (The West Wing) exercises "cognitive muscles," he writes.

Does multitasking just come naturally to kids? Or is it a skill that can be sharpened with practice, like algebra or baseball?

No, and maybe.

The eminent scholar Yogi Berra once observed that you can't think and hit a baseball at the same time.

Neuroscientists agree. The brain can't concentrate on two things at once.

Multitasking is a misnomer: People toggle between tasks, says Edward Hallowell, an expert on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

And the best togglers seem to be 20-somethings, not children, based on research by the University of Illinois. People ages 7 to 82 were asked to switch between two memory tasks in some simple numeric experiments. Both ends of the age spectrum did poorly, with young kids faring worst, says Art Kramer, a professor of neuroscience and psychology.

Kramer says the brain's prefrontal cortex develops fully in the 20s. Performance declines after 60.

Younger generations immersed in social networking sites like MySpace and online virtual worlds such as Second Life "will have a completely different set of expectations about what you can do with media" compared with more passive older consumers, says Michael Bloxham, director of the Insight and Research Center for Media Design at Ball State University in Indiana.

"That's quite empowering," Bloxham says.

Students at Seton Hall University in New Jersey can catch lectures on their video iPods and download professors' notes to their laptops, wirelessly, all without scribbling a word.

"I don't think it makes them any smarter," says Bert Wachsmuth, an associate professor of mathematics and computer science at Seton Hall. "It's just what they're used to. Technology is part of their life. If we didn't use it, we wouldn't be able to engage them as well."

Multitasking might make students dumber when it comes to writing essays or grasping Shakespeare, according to a study by the University of California, Los Angeles. Functional magnetic resonance imaging, which tracks blood flow, monitored brain activity in 14 subjects for two sets of similar experiments. During one round they also were asked to keep track of beeping sounds, to simulate multitasking.

The experiments activated separate parts of the brain, scans showed.

Focused tasks tapped the hippocampus, a region responsible for deep learning and subtle ideas. For multitasking, the basal ganglia took over. That is the brain's autopilot, for behaviors that become second nature.

The subjects, all in their 20s, later struggled to recall what they had learned while multitasking.

"When people learned under multitasking conditions, their learning was not as flexible," says psychology professor Barbara Knowlton, co-author of the UCLA study. "They could do simple associations, but when they were asked to probe deeper and had to use information that might replicate real learning, they really suffered."

Nina Ahuja insists music helps her "think better."

Music can boost mood, Knowlton says. But singing along, like watching TV or answering instant messages, is distracting. "It might give you a superficial sense that you're learning," Knowlton says.

Nina concedes the point.

Overall, she says, her electronic lifestyle "makes you dumber." Aside from screen names, her memory is "horrible." She says there is little time for reading or, surprisingly, for close friendships.

"What I regret most is not having a childhood. I don't feel I ever had a time in my life past 7 where I could just play with dolls, or just play with friends. I didn't go out and ride a bike. I was too consumed with this stuff."

Just like all her friends.

Kevin Coughlin covers technology for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.

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