Teens think they can multitask. They are wrong. Research explains why they are wrong, but before we get to that, let me address those of you who insist that you can indeed multi-task, (And if you think you’re a master at multitasking, then very likely you are among the worst at it [2].)

Try this little experiment:
1) Spell “ I cannot multitask” letter by letter while typing your full name
2) Spell“ I cannot multitask” first, then type your full name

How much time did you spend on each task? I used 13 seconds for the first task and 7 seconds for the second task. I also misspelled two letters in the first task.

Doing one task at a time seems so unproductive today. With so many distractions from social media, games, and entertainment, it becomes especially challenging for teenagers to focus on only one piece of work. Many teenagers believe they are good at multitasking as they watch Netflix while doing homework, and I am one of them. However, through research and experiments, psychologists concluded that the human brain does not have the capacity to perform heavy multi-tasks efficiently, and doing so only slows people down.

As my school continues in online classes during the pandemic, I have been doing much more multitasking because replying to an email or texting friends only takes seconds and will not affect my listening to the teacher, right? Also, because my friends and I cannot see each other face to face, we chose to meet on zoom and do homework together. It turned out that I did not fully understand what my teacher said, and I spent two hours on ten math problems.

Multitasking is simply switching attention back-and-forth between two cognitive tasks, or undertakings that require people to focus and mentally process new information [4]. People are good at switching attention quickly, so many assume they succeed in multitasking. By dividing attention, the chances of making mistakes, and the cost of time dramatically increase.

Every time you switch a task, you need time to adjust the mental control settings. Your brain needs to reconfigure control settings for a new activity. First, it keeps the memory of where you left off the task, then decides what task you want to change and how [5]. For example, you do your Spanish homework for five minutes, then do math homework for five minutes. As a result of your brain switching your mental settings between Spanish and English, as well as verbal and logic, the cost of time boosts.

Psychologists conducted many more task-switching experiments like the example above and measured the costs of time. Experiments showed that in no matter what aspects, including complexity and familiarity of the tasks, single taskers outperformed and spent less time than multitaskers [5].

Furthermore, Stanford communication professor Clifford Nass’s study should wake teenagers up. He experimented with one hundred college students, and the results were surprising.

Heavy media-multitaskers, who jump from one website to another, texting friends and reading emails while doing homework, performed terribly on attention tests. The results suggested that when these multitaskers faced multiple sources of information, they would be easily distracted by irrelevant information and struggled to organize and store information in their brains, leading to inferior memories [3].

Is it possible that multitaskers are faster at switching tasks than anyone else? Clifford Nass and his colleagues conducted another experiment. Ironically, heavy multitaskers required more time to switch from tasks as well [3].

People’s attention is finite, and our brains cannot pay attention to more than one job at a time. Much more research demonstrated that when people divide their attention because of multitasking, adverse effects follow.

Watching TV while eating seems so relaxing and a great way of multitasking. Chiefly, this action works in multitasking because eating is an automatic activity – a physical activity that has been completed so often and does not require thinking. However, watching TV is more complex, and makes it difficult for the human brain to process how much and what food people are eating comprehensively. As a result, people overeat and have trouble digesting. Another example is walking while talking. Walking is an automatic activity, but studies proved that the chances of bumping into others escalate while you talk and walk.

Additionally, multitasking leads to distracted driving. When people text or talk while driving, not only they take a longer time to get to the destination, their risks of accidents skyrocket. A study at Utah University showed that drivers who used cellphones when driving are actually less capable of multitasking and took longer to drive. They are also more likely to be impulsive and sensation-driven than single taskers, bringing more danger to driving. The danger of distracted driving is severe, and distracted driving plays an increasingly larger role in teen car accidents. According to NHTSA, nine percent of all teen motor vehicle crash fatalities in 2017 involved distracted driving [1].

So why do people multitask? The researchers at Utah University proposed that people who love multitasking tend to have difficulty focusing on one activity and are sensation-seeking. Doing several activities is more stimulating and exciting. Hence, they applied multitasking to their lives [2].

In all, multitasking increases the chance of making mistakes, consumes more time, interferes with memory storing, and even brings harm to our lives. How to improve productivity? The right answer is one task at a time!


Works Cited

[1] “Distracted driving in fatal crashes, 2017.” National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Apr. 2006,

[2] “Frequent Multitaskers Are Bad at It.” University of Utah News, 23 Jan. 2013, archive.unews.utah.edu/news_releases/frequent-mulitaskers-are-bad-at-it/.

[3] Gorlick, Adam. “Media Multitaskers Pay Mental Price, Stanford Study Shows.” Stanford University, Standford Report, 24 Aug. 2009, news.stanford.edu/news/2009/august24/multitask-research-study-082409.html.

[4] Kester, Liesbeth, and Paul A. Kirschner. “Cognitive Tasks and Learning.” SpringerLink. Springer, Boston, MA, January 1, 1970. https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007/978-1-4419-1428-6_225.

[5] “Multitasking: Hidden Costs.” American Psychological Association, 20 Mar. 2006, www.apa.org/research/action/multitask.

Ying Hu is a junior at Rutgers Preparatory School in New Jersey. She is passionate about psychology and neuroscience, and she loves writing about them. Besides academics, she enjoys painting, playing the piano, and practicing Chinese calligraphy.