Digital multitasking changing how kids learn

Do kids learn differently? The more they multitask, the less flexible their thinking, study finds.

When people talk about how kids deal with their wired existence - IMing, web surfing, doing homework, talking on the phone, seemingly simultaneously - it's often said that multitasking is not a problem, because the younger generation understand how to do this. It's natural, it's said, for kids to multitask and rather unnatural to merely sit and read. Thus, all manner of behavior problems in schools are created for lack of tasks.

There's more truth to this than you may have realized. A new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that kids who work in distracted mode are literally changing the way their brains work. The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that the distractions that 3rd through 12th-graders face, can affect the way they learn later on. These findings may have important implications for students as well as educators, eSchool News reports.

"What's new is that even if you can learn while distracted, it changes how you learn"--making the learning "less efficient and useful," said Russell A. Poldrack, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Poldrack explains that the brain learns in two different ways. Declarative learning deals with learning active facts that can be recalled and used with great flexibility. The second is habit learning or memorization through repetition. Distractions seem to undermine declarative learning so that habit learning dominates and flexibility deteriorates.

"In my opinion, this article represents a significant step forward in understanding the interaction between the various memory systems possessed by healthy human adults and task demands," said Dr. Chris Mayhorn, who teaches psychology at North Carolina State University.