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Smartphones During Homework? Multitasking Do’s and Don’ts

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School is just about here. Launching good habits from day one rather than tying up frayed pieces after grades slip makes the most sense. One easily managed grade helper…preventing homework wars. Your kid tells you he HAS to use his phone during homework. You’re skeptical. It seems he is tweeting and watching YouTube videos more than “discussing math problems.” Wondering if you should yank it or allow it? Here are some legit research findings to inform your decision.

Learning basics: Memory consolidation

Efficient memory storage is essential for good academic performance. In order for a memory to be stored, the learner must effectively anchor or encode the information and then process it without interruption. Processing, or transforming short-term memories into long-term memories through its biochemical and electrical processes, is called consolidation.

Research with brain injury subjects along with recent advances in brain imaging have shown that different types of memories encode, consolidate, and store in different parts of the brain. For example, memorizing factual information (required to perform well in school tests) primarily involves the medial temporal lobe and the temporal cortex. Conscious or intentional learning is called explicit memory. Memorizing procedural information (like how to tie your shoes or drive a car) is stored in the areas of the brain that involve motor control. Learning without conscious awareness is called implicit memory. Emotional memories (like those that occur in traumatic situations) are stored in multiple brain areas including our emotional center, the amygdala.

What factors facilitate learning and memory consolidation?

  • Good self-care and cognitive fitness (good nutrition, sleep, exercise, and a positive mood)

  • A distraction-free study environment

  • Mental engagement: attention and motivation

  • Processing material from a variety of formats (listening to lecture, reading notes, writing notes, re-writing notes, watching videos, engaging in discussion, etc.)

  • Memorizing material in a variety of study environments

  • Making unique meaning of the material, such as generalizing and applying the concepts, especially with emotional connections

  • Repetition

  • Uninterrupted brain rest after each study session

What factors interfere with learning and memory consolidation?

  • Anything that interrupts the above factors, like multitasking with screen media and sleep deprivation due to vamping (screen overuse at night).

How does multitasking interfere with learning?

  • Toggling between tasks burns valuable time and energy, leaving the multitasker feeling irritable and fatigued.

    • The brain simply isn’t wired to process several data streams at once. Deterioration in performance due to multitasking is called response cost.
    • By frequently disengaging from one task and engaging with another, we rapidly burn up oxygenated glucose in the prefrontal cortex and the striatum; the same fuel we need to get through the task in the first place! This depletion of brain nutrients leaves us feeling foggy and fatigued. Some call this state mental brownout.
    • When we are experiencing mental brownout, we move slower, have more trouble making decision, and become more impulsive, anxious, aggressive, and depressed. That means that, in the big picture, the multitasker is teaching herself that learning is punishing. No bueno.
  • Research demonstrates that watching television while doing homework leads to the wrong type of memory encoding necessary for good testing performance. More specifically, if your children study while watching TV, they will encode that information as procedural data rather than factual data. Encoding in the wrong brain region makes fact retrieval at test time more difficult.
  • Academic performance declines on average by half of a letter grade when multitasking. The longer and more frequent the distractions, the more the performance decline.

    • Deterioration of performance is worse if both tasks use the same cognitive resources (e.g., both explicit language tasks like reading and listening to song lyrics).
  • Habitual multitasking leads to skill deterioration.

    • The more students multitask, the more their brain structures change to adapt to inefficient learning styles. For instance, with practice, multitaskers get better at rapidly toggling between tasks (as if they’ve forged a wider mental pipeline). However, students who are frequently interrupted by screen media notifications eventually lose their ability to filter out or discriminate between tasks that facilitate learning from those that interfere with learning; all tasks are eventually perceived as having equal priority. Goodbye organization and triage skills.
    • Once lost, getting good learning skills back is much harder than losing them in the first place. It’s kind of like “unseeing” something…
  • People are terrible at recognizing that multitasking is interfering with learning. They’ll insist they’re doing better when they really aren’t.

    • Research demonstrates that students consistently underestimate the costs of multitasking. So even if your kids insist that they know exactly what they’re doing, they don’t!
    • There is an exception to this finding, however. Two percent of the population has been found to be supertaskers. Unlike the rest of us, these lucky learners can multitask efficiently without experiencing the negative side effects. I think I’m a supertasker! But because I suck at recognizing response cost like everybody else, there’s a 98% chance I’m delusional.

Is there anything parents can do to optimize learning and memory performance for themselves and their kids?

  • YES! Allow your children to have input and negotiate sensible GetKidsInternetSafe (GKIS) guidelines.

    • Stage the learning environment to be optimally effective, like I blueprint in my GKIS Quickstart Kit! Easy setup with long-lasting benefit.
    • Rather than set a blanket restriction on multitasking, have a discussion about what types of multitasking are most problematic. Then plot it out and sign an agreement like the GKIS Staging Agreement provided in the Quickstart Kit.

  • Teach your children to assess each situation to see if the tasks compete for cognitive resources. The best learners make sensible adaptations over time.

  • If your children are searching for online tasks that will enrich their learning, like finding a video to supplement lecture notes or playing games to apply spelling words, by all means encourage that behavior! Offer it as the dessert (practice activities) after the main course (memory consolidation).

    • Be aware that gaming systems and most social media apps allow the user to log off temporarily. Make homework time a GKIS Blackout Situation. Schedule them into screen device parental controls. Of course, a one-time solution won’t typically solve the problem. You’ll have to monitor and consistently check compliance.
  • Model healthy work-play reward contingencies by helping your children prioritize activities. In other words, require that your children complete their homework prior to engaging in screen media activities. Pulling children off screen media once they’re engaged is a fight. Not only will their brain fuel be depleted, but they’ll be in withdrawal from the dopamine hits to their brains’ pleasure center. Why set them (and yourself) up for that?

    • Ideally schedule in a 30 minute break between homework completion and screen turn-on time. Otherwise your kids will recklessly rush to get to their fun, and grades will decline.
  • Sing-along music during homework will compete for language resources. Allow instrumental music only.

  • Learn from the supertaskers!

    • By studying supertaskers, researchers have found that they tend to maintain superior skills by limiting multitasking time and refueling with healthy emotional and cognitive strategies like maintaining a good attitude (cognitive restructuring) and practicing mindfulness, imagery, and meditation. That means healthy life activities outside of school are as important to brain fitness as maintaining healthy learning habits.

You know what's even easier and more effective than smart homework rules for getting your kids on-target with homework? Staging your home for academic and screen safety success is key. For a quick tutorial on how to start the school year off right, check out my GetKidsInternetSafe Quickstart Kit. It guides smart screen use staging for families with kids of any age, a powerful start to screen safety and risk prevention!

I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetYourKidsInternetSafe.

Onward to More Awesome Parenting,

Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty



I am a grateful mother of three feisty kids, a psychologist, and a university professor. My passion is soaking in the beautiful chaos of my busy home and helping GetKidsInternetSafe (because I hear the inside stories why we need it)!



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