Back to School in a Wired World

and What We Can Do About It.

Not sure how to help your children cope with all of the distractions and
dilemmas that the new technology brings? Here's some expert advice.

Q.My teenager does homework, listens to an iPod, and sends instant messages on the computer -- all at the same time. Could this multitasking hinder learning?

A. Yes, says Russell Poldrack, PhD, a University of California, Los Angeles,
associate professor of psychology. "When the goal is learning, it's
important to focus," he says. "Learning and memory are pretty badly
reduced when you're multitasking."B

In one of Poldrack's studies, 14 adults (average age 26) had to learn a new
task while simultaneously listening to a series of beeps and counting only the
high tones. Poldrack discovered that this type of active multitasking impaired
the subjects' ability to learn.B

In real life, a teen is engaged in active multitasking if he or she sends
text messages or talks on a cell phone while reading a textbook.B

What's the result? "You sacrifice ability to focus and general
performance," Poldrack says. "One of the most fundamental and
widespread findings in psychology is that whenever you have to switch back and
forth between doing things, you're not as good at them as if you had focused on
them. The brain has some pretty fundamental limits in terms of its ability to
do multiple things at once."

Compared to active multitasking, does listening to music while studying
create the same type of distraction? That's less clear, Poldrack says. "Our
work doesn't really show that that passive kind of background noise is
necessarily a bad thing. We haven't looked at it."

It depends on the student, Healy says. "With music in the background,
you still may be able to focus. Some kids can and some can't."B

If a parent is alarmed that a teen is multitasking too much, dictating
change usually doesn't work, Healy says. She suggests giving a teen a news
article about the hazards of multitasking and asking, "What do you think
you might be able to do about this?"

"Get your child thinking about what this means to them and their
learning," she says. "Let the kid make the plan. That way, they have
ownership over it."

For example, teens might find that their ability to focus improves -- as
well as grades in school -- if they separate homework and active distractions
as much as possible. That may mean doing only homework for 45 minutes, then
taking a 15-minute break to instant-message friends, make phone calls, or
update a MySpace or Facebook page.

Q. My 10-year-old daughter begs for a cell phone because all of her close friends own one. Should I give her one?

A. Teens who drive may need a cell phone for safety reasons. But cell phones
"are not generally recommended for preteens," says Regina Milteer, MD,
a representative of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on
Communications and Media. Children that young may not be responsible enough to
own a cell phone.

"But to be very, very realistic," Milteer says, some preteens may
need a cell phone for emergencies -- for instance, if they walk alone from
school to their home or a parent's office.

If parents decide to give a child a cell phone, they'll have more control
over usage if they go with a prepaid cell phone plan, in which a parent buys
minutes ahead of time and replenishes as needed, Milteer says.B

What if there's no compelling reason to buy a preteen a cell phone, other
than peer pressure?

You can tell your child no, Milteer says. You can talk, though, about
getting a phone in the future, when your child becomes more independent and may
need to touch base with you about after-school plans.B

Q. My daughter in middle school is addicted to text-messaging friends on her cell phone. Why does she need such constant connection?

A. It's normal aolescent behavior, Healy says. "Peer relationships are
just primary for many kids that age, particularly girls. If everyone else is
doing it, the most horrible thing in the world is to feel that you're being
left out of the conversation."

But out-of-control text-messaging isn't the answer, Milteer says. "You
have to be patient and understanding. But at the same time, limits have to be

Some old-fashioned ways still work wonders, she adds. "If they feel like
they need to have company and be included, invite a couple of friends
over."B B B B

Another problem area: text-messaging long after parents have gone to bed.
"Kids don't talk on land lines anymore," Milteer says. "If my
daughter were using the phone in her room, I could hear her talking to someone.
But if she's text-messaging, I would never know."B

Don't let too much text-messaging cut into a child's precious sleep time,
Milteer says. She recommends that parents take a child's cell phone and store
it away for the night.

Q. My 8-year-old son loves video games -- so much that he plays up to three hours each day. Should I limit video games by turning them into a reward only for good behavior?

A. "That's a bad idea," Milteer says. "We're reinforcing
behavior that's not always healthy."

"I would offer them activities other than extra TV time," she says.
Better rewards -- for example, a simple park outing or a brand new pair of
skates -- would encourage physical activity.B B B

In fact, parents should enforce rules to keep kids from playing video games
for three hours a day, experts say. According to Milteer, the American Academy
of Pediatrics recommends that those ages 2-18 should engage in no more than two
hours per day of "screen time," which includes TV, computer or video
games, even watching movies or playing games on a cell phone.

Children under age 2 should have no screen time at all, such as TV viewing,
Milteer adds.B

Reading, doing large-piece puzzles, and playing with other toddlers are
better choices for development and social skills, she says.B

To help limit time spent on electronic games, don't put a TV or computer in
a child's room, Milteer says. Instead, "Put them in a kitchen or a family
room where the parents can monitor computer or game activity."B

Q. My son spends most of his free time online, playing games, downloading music, instant-messaging, and surfing web sites. When does this activity cross the line into being unhealthy?

A. Falling grades, loss of friends, sleep disturbance -- any of these signs
can point to "too much electronic stimulation," Healy says.

Try to monitor your child's Internet use, she suggests. If you're worried
that his or her computer habits are seriously disrupting academic, home, or
social life, consider seeking help from teachers or psychological
professionals, Healy adds. "It's worth talking to a counselor about it.
This is not a trivial matter."

By Katherine Kam
Reviewed by Louise Chang
B)2005-2006 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved