Really, I'm listening

November 10, 2006 | By Melissa Dahl 

One earbud in, the other dangles. Cell phone in hand, thumbs tap out a message. One eye on the TV, another on several blinking IMs. Oh, and an open textbook lies nearby.

Still, they insist, “I’m listening!”

Parents have never had an easy time relating to their teens, and now there’s more to compete with than ever. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 87 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds are regularly online, 75 percent use instant messaging, and 84 percent own cell phones and iPods.

And often, they do all that at once.

Almost one-third of kids ages 8 to 18 say they multitask while doing homework, says a 2005 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Distractions included chatting on the phone, surfing the Internet, instant messaging, watching TV and listening to music.

With so many things competing for their attention, how do parents grab and hold the attention of a generation famed for doing five things at once? Many parents either shy away (often because they don’t get it) or chastise their kids’ multitasking habits (also because they don’t get it), parenting experts say.

“They perceive that it’s part of their world,” says William Strauss, who has co-authored several books about this generation, including “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation” (Vintage, $10.17, 432 pages) and “Millennials and the Pop Culture” (LifeCourse Associates, $49, 247 pages). “They’re having to come up with new norms and understand what the new norms are.”

Here are a few of those new norms, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation:

  • The actual number of hours devoted to media has remained the same at 6 1/2 hours a day, but teens are spending more of that time multitasking.
  • Video games and computers are being used increasingly (about 50 minutes a day for video games and one hour for computers).
  • While watching TV, reading, listening to music or using a computer, about a quarter of kids surveyed said they use another form of media at the same time.

Diane Lambert of Rancho Cordova regularly voices concern over the study method her 15-year-old daughter, Faith Lambert, uses to do homework. Faith keeps one eye on the TV, often sends instant messages to her friends, and gets the work done during breaks in commercials and conversation.

Faith says it’s just a way of making her homework more bearable; her mom wonders how she can focus. But then, Faith’s not all that surprised by her mom’s confusion.

“She’s old! She doesn’t get it,” Faith says. “She can barely understand how to work the e-mail.”

Some studies show that her mom may be right—distractions don’t exactly help learning. If a student is multitasking during homework, it can make the knowledge they gain harder to recall later, according to a recent UCLA study. Learning happens in the brain in two different ways: one is declarative learning, which happens in the medial temporal lobe. It involves memorizing knowledge to be remembered and manipulated.

The second type happens in the striatum, and it essentially deals with forming habits. When a person is distracted while learning, habit-forming takes over, according to the UCLA study, published in the Aug. 1 issue of Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

Still, if you ask most teens, they argue that multitasking works.

Kaylyn Goodman, 16, has a homework routine she swears by. “I have my music on, and my phone’s right next to me, and I’m eating and I’m doing my homework,” says Kaylyn, a junior at McClatchy High School. She admits occasionally peeking at her My-Space page.

Kaylyn insists that while it may look like she’s doing five things at once, she’s not. For her, one project gets the main focus; all the IMing, text messaging and MySpacing are merely accessories.

“I feel like it helps me,” Kaylyn says. “If I’m sitting in silence, it’s hard. My brain is going a bajillion miles an hour, and I’m thinking, ‘I have all this stuff to do!’ “

Kaylyn’s mom, Lynn Shibata, says it’s been necessary to set some guidelines for Kaylyn. Before, “she had the radio on, the TV on, the computer on, every stimulation she could get,” Shibata says.

Now, when it’s study time, there’s no Internet and no TV, but music’s OK. “That seems to be working, so (her) grades are really good,” Shibata says.

That’s an attitude that Kaylyn says she can deal with.

“I think the parent should just let the kid do what they’re doing, ‘cause it’s working,” she says.

But homework aside, a common complaint from parents of teenagers is that it’s just rude (like when a parent-teen chat is interrupted by an AOL Instant Messenger chat). Parenting expert Vicki Panaccione, a child psychologist who founded and runs the Better Parenting Institute, says parents should teach kids the etiquette of unplugging.

“I think the good news is that more is getting in there than we think, but I really believe in social graces,” Panaccione says.

She says teens should take (both) earbuds out, and eyes off the computer or TV screen when talking to someone in person. At school, stop text messaging and put the cell phone away; make sure to ask questions and participate in the discussions. And for courtesy and safety while driving, don’t text message, talk on the phone or have both earbuds in. Recently, teens named text messaging as their No. 1 distraction while driving, according to a study by the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety.

If parents wonder where their teens picked up their multi- tasking ways, they might question whether it’s from their own example of doing five things at once, says Shibata.

One of the best ways parents can bridge the digital divide is to seek to understand it. Kaylyn wishes her parents would understand that, yes, she often does multiple things at once, but it’s more out of necessity than pleasure. She’s has many commitments (such as Girl Scouts, play rehearsals and, oh yes, school), and it takes a very accomplished multitasker to get it all done.

“I wish that they would know getting all this stuff done and on top of it doing extracurricular things that will help us get into college—it’s really hard,” Kaylyn says.

Lambert suggests watching the teen’s schedule and looking for a break in their activities. Try sneaking in time for a conversation when they’re not plugged in.

And parents can ask teens to help them figure out their plugged-in world. When all else fails, flattery usually helps.

“Teenagers think they know it all, and to say, ‘Hey you know what, you know a lot more than I do,’ usually works,” Panaccione says.

Although, teens plead, parents shouldn’t get too involved. Of ith the horrifying prospect of getting an instant message from her mom, Faith says, “Oh geez, I’d delete that screen name.”