We know texting while driving has consequences, but what about texting when doing homework?
It’s something almost all kids do, and most parents have also been known to check their text messages at their desk. If we’re being honest, most of us have our cell phone within arm’s reach when we’re at work, and we will glance at it from time to time. When we’re defending the practice we call it “multitasking.” How bad could it really be?
Pretty bad, according to a recent study that found the mere presence of a smartphone reduces a person’s ability to focus. In the study, undergraduates asked to leave their phones in another room did better on cognitive tests than those who were asked to silence their phones and leave them face down on their desk or in a bag.
In the experiment, even students who said they weren’t thinking consciously about their cell phones still experienced a loss in ability, which means some of this distraction is happening on an unconscious level. This is bad news for those of us who think we’re pretty good at not being distracted by the phone when we’re working.
“I hear about these issues about technology all the time,” says Matt Cruger, director of the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute. He says that with the kids he works with, he isn’t concerned about their capacity to be able to do homework, but with “the capacity to really get in the mindset of thinking about homework-related activities.” In other words, they could do their work if they were able to focus on it. And while trouble focusing on homework is hardly something new for children, captivating new technologies aren’t making it any easier.
Why are tech devices so distracting? For starters, most apps and web content are engineered to be as user-friendly and addictive as possible. They ping us with notifications when we get a new message or when someone has posted something we might be interested in. They are reliable sources of validation that tell us when someone likes something we’ve posted.
And we know there is always something new to look at. Even if we haven’t heard the buzz alerting us to something new, we might find ourselves restlessly reaching for the phone to scroll through the constantly updating feeds full of pictures and headlines and jokes curated just for us. We might also feel some pressure to keep up.
But there are also some less-obvious reasons why kids may be particularly hooked. Phones are where young people do a lot of their socializing now, especially as they reach the pre-teen and teenage years, when their major developmental goals are to start crafting an identity separate from their parents and to prioritize forming friendships with their peers — goals that are made for spending hours on social media.
Compared to adults, kids also have a less developed ability to control their impulses. If it’s sometimes hard for their parents to unplug, imagine how hard it is for a child who struggles with impulsivity or a teen with a new BFF to resist checking her phone. Prioritizing getting started on a book report or even studying for tomorrow’s test won’t be nearly as compelling.
Many adults and kids share the idea that when we are texting or monitoring feeds while we work we are still being productive — we are able to juggle everything at once. But neuropsychologists aren’t optimistic about how productive multitasking really is. “Having multiple sources of technology at your fingertips and available at all times probably is almost a guarantee of a reduction in performance and productivity,” says Dr. Cruger.
For one thing, there’s what experts call “resumption lag.” That’s the period of time between when you were interrupted from a task and when you resume it. Transitioning between tasks isn’t seamless, and the time spent collecting your thoughts prior to resuming a task add up.
A study out of Stanford in 2009 examined how well multitaskers are able to process information. People considered heavy media multitaskers were found to have more difficulty ignoring irrelevant but distracting things in their environment. As a result they actually performed worse on a test of task switching ability when compared to people who were lighter multitaskers.
Multitasking means working less efficiently even when you think you’re applying yourself. That’s because people dividing their attention aren’t able to engage in their work with the fluency they might otherwise have. “They’re not free to think about what’s the best way to do something,” Dr. Cruger explains. “Kids will start a task, try to get the task done, but not take the time to travel along and figure out how to do the task best.”
While the work might still get finished, multitasking adds up to shallower thinking and more time spent actually working. But it’s hard for kids to see it that way. “If you haven’t really established a disciplined routine for learning and thinking, it’s hard to have a sense of what to compare your current performance against,” notes Dr. Cruger.
Kids who struggle with attention
There’s a kind of myth that kids who have ADHD are uniquely suited to multitasking.
At a Child Mind Institute event about how children are affected by technology, Ali Wentworth, actress, comedian and host of the event, described how she found her teenage daughter the evening before: She was doing her homework on one screen, texting on another, with Gilmore Girls playing on a third. When Wentworth protested, her daughter told her, “I have ADHD. This is how I do my homework.”
In reality, multitasking during homework can be particularly difficult for kids who have ADHD.
“There’s pretty compelling literature that suggests that nobody is actually good at multitasking, but I think kids who have ADHD also have a set of cognitive distortions about their skills and capacities,” says Dr. Cruger. “They’re probably worse at multitasking than people without ADHD, but they often think they’re better at it.”
That might be because the constant stimulation offered by tech devices is very appealing to kids with ADHD. Short bursts of attention, with immediate rewards, are easier for them than paying sustained attention. But trying to do both at the same time — juggling homework and Snapchat — would be particularly difficult for them.
That’s because people with ADHD struggle with executive functions, which are the self-regulating skills we use to do things like shift between situations, control our emotions and impulsivity, and organize and make plans. These are all skills that are integral to doing homework and they are weakened further when we are dividing our attention across multiple platforms.
“One of the psychological impacts for people with ADHD is they have to make smart decisions about how to use their resources wisely because they have limited attentional resources and they have limited capacity to do the hard work of learning naturally,” explains Dr. Cruger. “It just takes more effort for them.”
Given that kids with ADHD are particularly susceptible to the stimulation that tech devices provide, and that focusing on homework is already harder for them, successfully doing both would be incredibly difficult.
Related: What Is Working Memory?
A distraction-free mind
Setting up a homework routine that minimizes distractions is important, especially if your child struggles with attention, or seems to be finding that her homework is taking much longer than it should.
Let her know that the goal is to make doing homework easier and less stressful. Removing those distractions should improve her homework experience and leave her with more actual free time.
If it’s difficult to get your child’s buy-in, establishing regular homework breaks where she gets to walk away from her homework and check social media or check her texts can make this an easier sell. But to be effective, the breaks should be planned and discrete — they shouldn’t bleed into homework time and ideally they should happen away from her study space, which should be a place for focusing.
This sort of discipline might not come naturally to kids or adults, but learning to unplug from distractions is a life skill that will become increasingly important as technology becomes more absorbing, and the need to learn and stay focused doesn’t go away.
Do Video Games Cause ADHD?
Strategies to Make Homework Go More Smoothly
How Using Social Media Affects Teenagers
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Welsh Liberal Democrat AM Peter Black argues why it would be a mistake to ban e-cigarettes in pubs, clubs and restaurants
The journey taken by e-cigarettes over the past few years has been remarkable.
From virtually nowhere, we can now find a shop selling them on every high street.
Tens of thousands of people suffer and die prematurely each year in the UK from cancer, heart disease and other conditions directly linked to smoking.
It is an addiction than many find difficulty in quitting.
E-cigarettes are not harmless nor are they risk-free – very few things are – but they do offer a route to a healthier lifestyle.
An expert independent evidence review published by Public Health England concluded that e-cigarettes are significantly less harmful to health than tobacco and have the potential to help smokers quit smoking.
They are rushing into legislation without having done their homework
They said that the current best estimate is that e-cigarettes are around 95% less harmful than smoking.
However, there are some who take a different view and who are cautious about the growth of this phenomenon.
The Welsh Government started out by wanting to introduce the same restrictions on the use of e-cigarettes in public as apply to cigarettes.
They now only want to limit the ban to some public spaces and buildings.
They are concerned that e-cigarettes will normalise smoking, especially for children.
They want to take a precautionary approach against the possibility that the vapour from e-cigarettes might be harmful.
What they are not doing is considering evidence of the good that e-cigarettes do and how their own actions might undermine that benefit.
They are rushing into legislation without having done their homework so as to justify their ban.
When the smoking ban was introduced in Wales there was very clear evidence as to the harmful impact of second-hand smoke on people’s health.
Ministers are using legislation to try to regulate a perfectly legal activity
I sat on a cross-party committee that spent months looking at the research and listening to expert testimony before backing that ban.
There is no such evidence with regards to e-cigarettes.
Instead, ministers are using legislation to try to regulate a perfectly legal activity so as to change people’s behaviour.
The anti-smoking campaign group ASH Wales, Cancer Research UK and Tenovus are among those opposed to this ban, while the British Heart Foundation, British Lung Foundation and the Royal College of Physicians want more evidence to be gathered.
Furthermore, in a public consultation on the proposals last year, 79% of responses were opposed.
Some people who vape are concerned that they will now be cast outside to join the smokers and that this will lead to them returning to smoking.
Indeed, there is some evidence in other countries that this is what has happened.
There is strong evidence that e-cigarettes have enabled a large number of people to give up smoking, something that decades of lectures by government have failed to do.
The Public Health England review found that almost all of the 2.6 million adults using e-cigarettes in Great Britain are current or ex-smokers.
Most are using the devices to help them quit smoking or to prevent them going back to cigarettes.
As for the danger of normalising smoking or encouraging young people to take it up, other studies have found that this is not the case.
The concern that e-cigarettes would lure young people to smoking has not been supported by evidence
A survey by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) Wales found very few young people between 13 and 18 who have never smoked have tried e-cigarettes. Less than 3% of “never-smokers” who responded to the survey reported having tried an e-cigarette.
The survey also suggested that, of the young people who had tried e-cigarettes, a quarter had done so to help them stop smoking or cut down on the number of cigarettes they smoked.
Professor Peter Hajek, director of the Tobacco Dependence Research Unit at Queen Mary University of London, told a summit in Wales that “virtually nobody” who is a non-smoker experimenting with e-cigarettes would move on to daily smoking.
He said: “The concern that e-cigarettes would lure young people to smoking has not been supported by evidence.
“About half of non-smokers who experiment with cigarettes progress to daily smoking.
“In a striking contrast to this alarming effect, among non-smokers experimenting with e-cigarettes, virtually nobody progresses to daily use.”
Another survey, commissioned by the Welsh Government, reported at the end of last year.
Researchers asked regular users of vaping devices if they had previously been tobacco-users, and almost every single respondent said yes. Of the 3,565 people aged 16 and older spoken to, only 1% of adults said they were e-cigarette users who had never smoked before.
A further 9% said they had tried e-cigarettes and considered themselves “non-smokers”.
Of those who currently use e-cigarettes, not one person said they had never smoked before.
Government shouldn't tell people how to conduct their lives without good-quality evidence
Both Cancer Research UK and ASH Wales have warned that the e-cigarette ban could be a backwards step in the fight to reduce smoking rates.
In addition, the saving to the public purse of the growth of e-cigarettes is substantial, and that is before we consider the improved health of ex-smokers.
The Health and Social Care Information Centre states that the average cost to the taxpayer of helping a smoker quit using Nicotine Replacement Therapy products rather than e-cigarettes is between £150 and £300.
Many people need more than one treatment and many revert back to smoking after some time.
There are roughly 467,530 smokers in Wales (20% of the adult population).
If each of those quit smoking via vaping instead of using taxpayer-funded Nicotine Replacement Therapy products, then the saving to the Welsh health budget could be more than £10.5m.
Good legislation is evidence-based and will seek to right a wrong or improve the quality of our lives.
Proposals by Welsh ministers to restrict the use of e-cigarettes in some public places fail to meet either of those criteria.
It is not the role of government to tell people how to conduct their lives without good-quality evidence of harm to support their actions.
Media Wales Chief Reporter Martin Shipton argues why electronic cigarettes should be banned in indoor public places
The first priority of any government must be to keep its population alive and healthy.
Inevitably this can lead to the imposition of regulations and restrictions that will annoy and even infuriate some.
Libertarian fundamentalists will moan about the “nanny state” and say people must have the right to behave as they please within the law. But in the interests of the majority, regulation is sometimes necessary.
The issue of whether individuals should be allowed to smoke electronic cigarettes in indoor public places is the latest battleground where freedom versus prudent regulation is being played out.
The Welsh Government has proposed such a ban, but does not hold a majority in the National Assembly and is having difficulty getting the legislation through.
Many have no conscience about the fact that most non-smokers find tobacco smoke nauseating
I support Health Minister Mark Drakeford’s wish to get a ban in place, which is in line with the policy of the World Health Organisation and, incidentally, that of the British Medical Association.
The sometimes aggressive stance of e-cigarette proponents is reminiscent of the position taken by many conventional smokers before their products were banned in such a way.
Many insisted they had an absolute right to smoke anywhere they chose, and had no conscience about the fact that most non-smokers find tobacco smoke nauseating.
How many restaurant meals were ruined by someone on the next table who found it impossible to resist smoking between courses or immediately they had finished their meal?
A smoking ban in public places took more than 40 years to be introduced after scientific research proved definitively that there was a causal link between smoking and cancer.
It wasn’t until numerous studies demonstrated a link between passive smoking and life-threatening health conditions that legislators decided to take action.
A significant number of lives were lost while politicians agonised over whether it was fair to limit the rights of smokers, despite overwhelming evidence that a ban on smoking in public places was the right measure to pass.
The ban struck the right balance between regulation and personal liberty.
For those of us who suffer from asthma or other lung-related conditions, the ban has been even more beneficial
People could continue to smoke if they were foolish enough to want to do so; they just wouldn’t be allowed to impose their disgusting habit on others in indoor public places.
As a result of the ban, it is now far more pleasant to eat out, to have a drink in a pub and to visit all manner of public spaces without having to inhale other people’s smoke.
For those of us who suffer from asthma or other lung-related conditions, the ban has been even more beneficial.
In only a few years since the ban was introduced, an intrusive environmental pollutant that damaged our health and our spirits has been evicted from our lives.
Now our well-being and peace of mind is at risk once more from new kinds of smoking products that, in some cases, are being heavily marketed at young people in particular.
E-cigarettes are, we are told, 95% safer than tobacco products.
Even if that were so – and they haven’t been on the market nearly long enough to evaluate their long-term health impact – a risk 5% as potent as smoking conventional cigarettes should be seen in the context of an industry which killed an estimated 100 million people in the 20th century – far more than all who died in World War I and World War II combined.
And if current smoking patterns continue, the number of lives lost from smoking in the 21st century will leap to around a billion.
Reintroducing smoking into the public sphere risks re-normalising an activity curtailed due to its negative health impacts
Supporters of e-cigarettes argue that since the risk they pose to individuals is so much less, and as they can be used as a means of weaning people off tobacco, they should be granted the status of full social acceptability.
Reintroducing smoking into the public sphere, albeit that the products concerned are e-cigarettes, risks re-normalising an activity that was curtailed because of its negative health impacts.
Before we allow the gains to be lost, we should consider whether the precautionary principle should be applied in these circumstances.
The precautionary principle holds that a course of action should not be embarked on if there is a reasonable chance that harm may ensue and where there is insufficient scientific consensus that the risk is negligible.
Much to the annoyance of the e-cigarette lobby, the World Health Authority concluded in 2014 that, in line with the precautionary principle, e-cigarettes should be banned in public places.
Focusing on the fact that while e-cigarettes contain no tobacco, they have high levels of nicotine, the WHO’s report said: “Nicotine is the addictive component of tobacco. It can have adverse effects during pregnancy and may contribute to cardiovascular disease. Although nicotine itself is not a carcinogen, it may function as a ‘tumour promoter’.
“Nicotine seems involved in fundamental aspects of the biology of malignant diseases, as well as of neurodegeneration.
“The evidence is sufficient to caution children and adolescents, pregnant women and women of reproductive age about (e-cigarette) use because of the potential for foetal and adolescent nicotine exposure to have long-term consequences for brain development.”
For me, the case for banning e-cigarettes in public places is a no-brainer
The report continues: “The main health risk from nicotine exposure other than through inhalation is nicotine overdose by ingestion or through dermal contact.
“Since most countries do not monitor these incidents the information is very scarce.
“Reports from the US and the UK nonetheless indicate that the number of reported incidents involving nicotine poisoning has risen substantially as the use of (e-cigarettes) has increased.
“The actual number of cases is probably much higher than those reported.”
Turning to the issue of whether e-cigarettes could pose a risk to those who passively inhale the vapour they generate, the WHO report states: “The use of (e-cigarettes) in places where smoking is not allowed … increases the exposure to exhaled aerosol toxicants of potential harm to bystanders.”
The report concludes: “The increasing concentration of the (e-cigarette) market in the hands of the transnational tobacco companies is of grave concern in light of the history of the corporations that dominate that industry.”
For me, the case for banning e-cigarettes in public places is a no-brainer. There is nothing to stop those wishing to use them as an aid to giving up tobacco doing so in their own homes.