Positive Associations Help Teens Focus

According to a recent study, teens are using media a staggering average of nine hours a day, excluding media time spent on schoolwork (for tweens it’s six). They’re using a variety of platforms during downtime, meals, chores, and even homework. There was a time when the ability to multitask was lauded as one of the most desirable skills those entering the workforce could possess. Not anymore.

Over the last few years, multitasking has emerged as nothing short of controversial. We now know that the vast majority of people who work at several tasks at once pay only partial attention to each one and that their productivity suffers. Still, with revolutionary changes in the media landscape, and the huge flow of information coming at us at all times, kids need to multitask to succeed in school, at work, and in this modern age.

Over Half of Teens Multitask While Doing Homework

The trouble is, for each shift in attention between one task and the next, a person needs to reorient to the new task. This has grave repercussions when you consider that according to the study, 51 percent of teens say they often or sometimes watch TV during homework. In fact, a study at the University Of London found that subjects who multitasked experienced drops in their IQ comparable to someone who missed a night of sleep.

Where parents might have been able to set clear limits on this phenomena in the past, handheld devices have changed the game. For those not watching shows, still, 50 percent often or sometimes use social media while doing homework, and 60 percent often or sometimes text during homework. Think of all those shifts in attention when kids are charged with retaining the information they’re studying.

Multitasking May Come Easy, But It Lowers Effectiveness

It turns out that learning to multitask with media comes easily to these kids. However, that still doesn’t change the fact that it reduces their effectiveness at each task. They still need to learn how to focus their attention by limiting media use, a challenge that can feel overwhelming to parents given the pervasiveness of screens and handheld digital devices.

But, another Common Sense study shows that 50 percent of teens actually admit they feel addicted to their mobile devices, so perhaps even despite the ever-presence of media in our lives, teens might be more willing to limit themselves than parents think. Especially if your child’s grades are slipping, it may be time to lay some ground rules.

Steps to Support Your Child’s Ability to Focus and Limit Multitasking

If your teen or tween could use more support focusing, use these ideas to help your family start setting more limits around media multitasking.

Have a heart-to-heart.

Ask your teen to reflect on their media consumption and share if and where they think they could scale back. Share your concerns about their media use, reminding them that the ability to focus their attention is a real-world skill that they can’t live without.

Check yourself.

The Common Sense study shows that parents are concerned about their own media addictions, and their kids see it too. Use your good judgment to be safe and sane with tech. Prioritize connecting with loved ones over connecting with media. Model the kinds of values and behavior you want your teen to follow.

Designate media-free zones.

Be sure to make limits that everyone can follow. During morning and evening routines, during homework, and at meals are organically easy times to turn off tech, as they are both defined by time and routines. Make a device curfew and have kids hand over their gear each night.

Make a game-plan around homework.

Consider a checklist option (Landra, anyone) for assignments that will allow them to tick off tasks as they complete them. Each tick is a mini reward that reinforces focus. Set small point values in the app that add up to a reward that can be redeemed immediately after accomplishing this goal. Create positive associations with focusing on a task.

Help kids understand the effects of multitasking.

Multitasking causes overstimulation of the brain which leads to memory impairment. It also causes addiction, and possibly even permanent structural damage. Helping kids stay focused will strengthen interpersonal skills and school performance, and ultimately ensure healthier outcomes across the board.


Jenny Kepler, MA, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist and writer who has been helping families navigate parenthood for over ten years. Her office is in downtown Portland, OR where she does in person therapy with adults, couples, and families. She also offers parent coaching over the phone for people who can’t see her in Portland. http://jennykepler.com/

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