Blast from The Past: The Day My Three-Year-Old Discovered Multitasking

Today we’re revisiting a post from a few years ago “The Day My Three-Year-Old Discovered Multitasking”:

I recently overheard a conversation between my three-year-old son, Kavi, and my husband. Kavi was about to go to bed and had only a couple minutes left to play. Dada asked him to choose how he wanted to spend his remaining time. Kavi said, “I have a great idea, dada! I can play iPad AND play Legos at the same time!!!”

Hoo boy, I thought. My son is becoming a multitasker at age three. Already dissatisfied with the pleasure of any single activity, he is trying to divide his attention between two things (one of which is a mobile device) thinking it will be more fun and he won’t have to miss out. Is this an expression of the dreaded FOMO, fear of missing out, rearing its head so early?

And thus followed a mental checklist of my potential parenting failures. Two stand out:

  1. I multitask too much in front of him. I am definitely a multitasker, but one who makes strong efforts to put away my devices when I am with my family. I don’t always succeed, so have I become a bad role model?
  2. I don’t encourage him to enjoy the process of doing and learning. As I’ve blogged about before, one way of thinking about styles of learning is making the following distinction: we can focus on and enjoy the process of learning, or we can learn with the goal of obtaining rewards (praise, grades, etc,…). If Kavi is so interested in multitasking, perhaps this is because he doesn’t fully enjoy the process of doing a single activity.

Then I thought on a more hopeful note, maybe I’ve done something very right, teaching him 21st century skills and facilitating his mental acuity:

  1. Multitasking in moderation is useful! Certainly, at this moment in time, people could be at a disadvantage if they are not able to take advantage of multitasking opportunities to gather information, learn, or accomplish goals – in moderation. So, the fact that it occurred to him to multitask two things he likes to do could simply indicate that his cognitive development is moving along nicely.
  2.  Maybe he is learning to augment his creativity via technology. Perhaps his thought was – well, I’m hitting a wall with new things to build with Legos so maybe I can use the iPad to come up with more ideas. But who knows what he was thinking. So I asked him.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: Hey sweetie, do you remember when you told daddy that you wanted to play iPad and Legos and the same time?

Kavi: mumbles something.

Me: What’s that?

Kavi: Yes, I think so.

Me: Why did you want to do iPad and Legos at the same time?

Kavi:  Because it’s the same kind of fun.

Me: The same kind of fun?

Kavi:  Yes. First you do iPad, then you do Legos. iPad, Legos, iPad, Legos….

Me:  But you also play Legos alone, just Legos.

Kavi: But that would be boring!

Me: Really? I see you do that all the time.

Kavi: Yes…..

At this point, I decided to drop it. So, what does this little bit of anecdotal evidence mean? I have no idea. But I think the bottom line is that I know my son and I’m not too worried. He is already quite good at focusing for long periods of time (he can build with Legos for hours if you let him). Perhaps, though, there is something I can do better. I could focus more on promoting his JOMO  – the joy of missing out. It’s the feeling that what you’re doing right now, at this moment, is exactly the perfect thing to do.

 

Focus and Distraction: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

Two recent posts by Stowe Boyd on GigaOm Research cover some really interesting research and ideas on how distraction can help us focus our decision making abilities, and how allowing our minds to wander via internet surfing (as long as it remains under 20% of your total time!) may boost productivity in the office. Thanks, Mr. Boyd.

It’s interesting to think about these ideas in the context of the debate that I am sure everyone has weighed in on at some point: Is the mobile device preoccupation many of us seem to have “good” or “bad” for us? Does it reflect some sort of obsessive multitasking, or the desire to escape our current moment? I think research findings like the ones discussed by Stowe Boyd point to the possibility that by asking this, we’re probably asking the wrong questions. Being on a device frequently is neither innately good nor bad – its effects depend upon when, why, and how much we use the device, and on whether it becomes a barrier to other ways of communicating, thinking, and learning.  This research also suggests that one of the factors that could influence our desire to be on mobile devices is that we all feel the (healthy?) need for distraction. The trick here is to make sure the power of distraction is harnessed for our well-being, and doesn’t just serve the desire to tune out or escape the present moment.

Downton Abbey: Television for the Internet Age?

I love Downton Abbey. It hits a sweet spot of mindless pleasure for me. Yes, it’s really just a British-accented Days of our Lives, but it’s wonderfully acted, soothingly English, and with a few nice clever twists. In honor of the US premiere of the third season last night, I thought I’d bring my interest in things digital to bear on Downton Abby. “How?” you might ask. It all starts with Shirley MacLaine.

Shirley MacLaine, who joined the cast for the third season (already aired in the UK but just now airing in the US), was recently interviewed by the New York Times about why she thinks the show has captured the devotion of so many. As most of you probably know, it’s been a huge, surprise international hit. If I have my stats right, it’s one of the biggest BBC shows ever.

She made a comment that caught my attention. From the interview (verbatim):

Q. What about the show hooked you in?

A. I realized that Julian [Fellowes, the “Downton Abbey” creator and producer] had either purposely or inadvertently stumbled on a formula for quality television in the Internet age. Which means there are, what, 15 or so lives and subplots, with which not too much time is spent so you don’t get bored, but enough time is spent so you are vitally interested.

Photo: Carnival Film

This comment alludes to an idea that we’re all familiar with – because we’re constantly multitasking and skimming huge amounts of information in a superficial way in order to wade through our daily information overload, we have developed a preference for short snippets of entertainment rather than more in-depth (read intelligent/complex) material. We just don’t have the patience or bandwidth anymore for anything longer or more involved.

I think linking up the popularity of Downton Abbey with this notion is an interesting idea. Of course, I have no basis upon which to say whether Ms. MacLaine is right or wrong, but my instinct is that she is not quite right. Although it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that much of our entertainment has evolved towards less depth and more superficiality over the past decades, this drift towards the superficial precedes the internet age. Soap operas have been popular for a long time. Reality television was a well-entrenched phenomenon before the dominance of mobile devices made multi-tasking a daily reality. And come on now; look at the TV shows from the 1950s or 1960s: Not exactly sophisticated material across the board.  How much have we actually drifted towards the superficial? Maybe we’ve just always been here.

So, for me, this explanation doesn’t hit the mark. However, another way to interpret Ms. MacLaine’s comment is that we love having “15 or more subplots” (to avoid getting bored) simply because we enjoy multitasking. It’s not that we CAN’T focus our attention for a long period of time. We just don’t like to. Perhaps we prefer shifting our attention because it feels better/easier/more familiar to divide our attention among several things. Perhaps we just want to have it all.

In illustration, yesterday, I showed my four-year-old son Kavi a picture (on my iPad) of some of his friends. He liked it a lot but there was something about it he didn’t totally understand (it was a joke picture). Whatever the case, he thought “it was cool.” His dad, Vivek Tiwary, and he were having a little boys’ time watching Tintin, so I started to walk away with the picture. He completely balked at that claiming he wanted to look at the picture and watch Tintin at the same time. I asked him how he’d do that, why he would want to do that, etc,…. No coherent answers were forthcoming except his claim that “it’s better this way.” And indeed, he proceeded to watch the movie, glance down at the picture on my iPad, watch the picture, glance down….for the next several minutes. He seemed to be enjoying himself. He seemed to feel it was better this way.

For me, the take-home message here was that for my little guy, more was just better. Maybe that’s the secret of Downton Abbey as well: it’s just a whole lot of whatever it is that makes it special.

 

In Love with the Written Word: Reading in the Digital Age

I was interested to see this commentary by five college students about reading in the digital age, posted on Zócalo Public Square. One of the things that struck me the most was my own anticipation that I would be out of touch with how college students are engaging with the written word today; and I’m a college professor who should be in touch! But actually, I found that the diversity of their approaches mirrors the same diversity I see among my peers.

digital readingSeveral seemed to express a need for speed and fast consumption of many (relatively superficial) sources of information in the attempt to swim rather than sink in the ocean of information that needs sorting through every day. Others seemed to feel burdened by this glut of information and feel nostalgic for the simple and physically-satisfying pleasure of holding and reading a book – a virtual luxury in our fast-paced lives because it’s hard to multitask with a book.  Among all the writers, however, I sensed information fatigue combined with enthusiasm for the written word.

My take-home message is that, whatever the future holds, the digital age has put writing, reading, and text at the center of our lives. I think we are becoming more rather than less in love with reading. The question is, what will we be reading and will it be grammatically correct ;-)?

Social Media: “A Flight from Conversation”?

I’ve started a research project on the impact of social media on our social and emotional lives. When I first began, I carefully considered Sherry Turkle’s work. For the past 15 years, she has written passionately about our evolving relationship with technology. Most recently (see her TED talk), she argues that the way we are using technology, in particular social media, has created “disturbing new habits” that have the potential to make us feel more alone rather than more connected. In other words, we are getting used to being alone, together – being with each other, but elsewhere at the same time. If you’ve ever sat at a table or in a room where everyone was busy on their devices rather than talking with each other, you know what she’s getting at.

I think Sherry Turkle has a lot of important things to say. But she is a divisive character. She does not mince words about what she thinks the implications of our technology habits are in terms of our psychological well-being – more alienation, more aloneness, loss of a capacity for solitude, and stunted development of some of the most basic of social skills, like having a conversation.  What is easy to forget, however, is that she also argues that these are habits that we can all change – if we choose to take a look at how our devices not only change what we do but change who we are.

It’s also important to remember that her research is entirely qualitative and anecdotal. Lab-based and quantitative research remains to be done to test her hypotheses. Below, I list a few ideas that she highlights, along with my ideas about how her hypotheses could actually be tested by empirical, lab-based research. For the record, these issues are not exactly what I am studying now, but stay tuned for blog posts that give you my results hot off the data presses.

1. Social media is a flight from conversation. This is the notion that the more we text, post, and email, the less we actually take time to talk with people. An important issue here is that having a conversation is a skill – one that we learn through practice.  So, where does that leave the kids today, who are trying to gain these skills? Are they going to be a bunch of Neanderthals communicating in non-grammatical text-ese? Probably not – that’s the future dystopia vision – but how will the Millenials learn to communicate?

One way to test this is to actually track teens over time, during periods that are critical for building conversational skills (early adolescence maybe). Then, analyze how differences in the frequency and types of social media use correspond over time with conversational skills and abilities (measured via existing IQ tests that tap verbal comprehension and production or measured via some newly developed measure). The longitudinal component is very important here because if you are looking at social media use and conversation skills at the same time, you can’t draw causal conclusions (i.e., it could just be that those with fewer conversational skills prefer the ease of social media). In contrast, by looking at how social media use predicts a trajectory of conversational development over time, you have firmer ground to stand upon if you conclude that social media use is causing conversational deficits. If supported, such findings lead to a lot of other important questions – like what do we do about it?

2. We are drawn to social media because we can have the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. This is tricky to study empirically because there are several very subjective components to this. One is that we need to measure peoples’ goals accurately – e.g., that people are using social media to gain a sense of companionship. This is self-report based, and there are issues like presentation biases (people might not want to admit why they use social media) that could make such things difficult to measure accurately. Secondly, how do you get at how people feel about the demands of friendship? Will research participants report – “Oh, yes, it’s just too hard dealing with my brother’s emotional demands over the phone all the time. Much easier to text.” Well, maybe some of us would articulate this, but many others might not even be aware that this is what they are doing.

So, in addition to asking people to report on their goals and motivations for social media use, we need to get at implicit processes that they may not be fully conscious of. In the psychology literature, there are tasks such as the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT requires users to make a series of rapid judgments, which researchers believe might reflect attitudes that people are unwilling to reveal publicly. For example, in gender bias research, the IAT has been used to show that most people associate women more strongly with family and men more strongly with careers. Could the IAT be used to examine attitudes towards social media and friendship?

3. We no longer want to give our full attention to anything, and our devices are the way to escape the “boring bits.” This is also tricky. A lot of recent research has examined multi-tasking in terms of whether it compromises your performance on the tasks you’re trying to do at the same time. The answer is: It does. But, in our hearts, we all knew that, didn’t we?

The issue here, though, is somewhat different than multitasking. It’s about the motivation to multitask. The idea is that we multitask to escape boredom, keep our minds busy and moving at all times.  Maybe some of us do it because of low boredom threshold, feeling uncomfortable with our thoughts, or having so much to do that any time we feel there is an “empty” moment, we try to fill it. There are lots of possibilities. But how do we study this? One way might be to actually put people in a boring situation (some staged boring lecture), with their devices, and see when and if they use them. If they do, ask them about the goals they were trying to meet (I had to answer that one email that was in the back of my mind;  I was bored, and wanted to see what was on my twitter feed). Once we have systematic responses to a real-life scenario from multiple people, we can start to seek out trends in the data.

But, this isn’t so satisfying. So, what if we add some biological measures to get at how using the device changes how we actually feel? Now we’re getting somewhere, because this reveals what using devices “buys us” and why we feel almost addicted to our devices at times. For example, one study showed that using Facebook decreases your physiological signs of stress – it calms you down. But in contrast, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, a study published in the January edition of Evolution and Human Behavior found that when girls stressed by a test talked with their moms, stress hormones dropped and comfort hormones rose. When they reached out to their moms via IM, however, nothing happened. Thus, IM’ing with their moms was barely different than not communicating with them at all- was ineffective in conveying comfort.  Taken together, these types of studies help get at why (and why not) devices become an integral part of how we cope, and of our emotional lives.

Bottom line. These are all just ideas. But I believe the bottom line is this: We need the Sherry Turkles of the world to help identify these issues and develop compelling hypotheses (and we need those who would disagree with her), but we also need people to, literally, put these ideas to the test.

Mama’s Always on Stage: Social Media and the Psychological Spotlight

 

In addition to being a shower blogger (see post from two weeks ago), I am also an exerblogger – I talk through blog ideas when I exercise with my trainer Blair. Mostly it’s to take my mind off the unpleasant task of exercising, but really it’s because I have a captive audience – Blair – who is my 20-something sounding board. Blair is not a huge social media user, but like many of his generation, it’s just part and parcel of his social life and the way he thinks about the world. The topic last week was the psychological spotlight.

The notion is that when we use social media, the things we do and say, the way we look, and the things we find interesting seem to have a heightened importance and to be under scrutiny. That is, we know that our lives can be transmitted (by us or others) at any time to the social network, to be seen, heard, and evaluated. So, psychologically, we’re always on stage, in the spotlight. And if we’re always on stage, then maybe, on some level, we are acting and not being fully authentic. Using social media can sometimes feel like being a celebrity walking down the street who knows that the paparazzi are always waiting around the corner.

And this is what is new about social media compared to previous ways of connecting with others – we can share just about anything, via a wide range of media, extremely easily.  We can be seen and heard whenever we want.   And, in turn, we can be nosy parkers and learn a lot about others whenever we want. Decades ago, in her collection of essays, On Photography, Susan Sontag argued that photography creates in people a “chronic voyeuristic relation” to the world around them. But Ms. Sontag did not imagine the level to which social media could take both our voyeuristic and exhibitionistic impulses.

My 3-year-old already gets this, although he doesn’t yet use social media. For him, the impulse to document and to be seen is fully entrenched – “Mama, take a video,” he says, every time he is doing something “cool.” This could be dancing, building blocks, making a funny face, kissing his sister, anything. And every video on demand (that is, he demands the video) ends with my son walking towards me and the device I’m holding to video him saying, “Can I see it? Can I see it?”

And this is what gets me wondering. Am I raising my son to be more self-conscious, more of an exhibitionist, and less authentic about what he says and does, because he knows he will be documented? Because he feels that he is on stage? Does he think he’s special just because he’s being recorded? Maybe not – all kids like to be seen, and among other things, it’s super cute and fun. But the ease of documentation and of sharing with others has taken this natural impulse to a whole new level.

This issue is similar to the debate about self-publishing discussed in a New York Times article over the weekend. The question raised was this:  when parents pay to make their children “published authors,” are they giving children a false sense of self-esteem to the point of self-aggrandizement? Are we ironically, not preparing them for the rigors and tough knocks and rejections of the real world by making everything too easy?  The self-esteem issue here is central because these published child authors feel famous, feel seen because their books are read. They are on stage.

I think there are no clear answers to these issues. I do, however, think that most of us would agree that being on stage is a deeply rooted impulse in our culture today – from reality television to You Tube to Facebook, this has been going on for a long time. Think back to America’s Funniest Home Videos (wait, is that still on?).  I’m not saying this impulse is new, or necessarily bad, but the more central the psychological spotlight becomes to how we all operate, the more we need to take time to understand what it means.

Parenting and Multi-Tasking in the Digital Age

As a psychologist and mom of two young children, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a parent in the digital age. A lot of people have already talked about how we feel tethered to our digital devices, and need to multi-task in order to juggle the constant demands on our attention. We’re no longer on the information superhighway – we’re in the Cloud. Which is exactly how I feel a lot of the time – like my head is in a cloud – unless I very purposefully step back and focus on being in the present with my family and friends.

But there are several issues from the standpoint of developmental psychology that I think aren’t discussed enough. I’ll focus on just two, here. The first issue is a child’s need to be genuinely seen and heard – or mirrored – by parents. The second is that we are teaching our children profound lessons about how to relate to other human beings when we multi-task with our devices instead of being present with them in the moment.

Mirroring. Parenting wisdom a few generations ago asserted that children should be seen but not heard. This is really incorrect in several ways. There is a classic concept in child psychology (originated by Heinz Kohut) called mirroring. Mirroring refers to the healthy process by which parents mirror or reflect back to children what they are saying, feeling, experiencing, wondering. Parents also look at children with a “sparkle” in their eye – that look of pride, warmth, and love that tells children they are appreciated and esteemed. Through this mirroring, children learn to understand their own behaviors, thoughts and emotions. They also learn self-regard and self-appreciation. Simply put, children learn to see themselves through our eyes.

Without this mirroring, many child developmentalists believe that children will not feel fully valued as human beings and will not as quickly and deeply learn to understand how to interpret their experiences and feelings. Imagine a world in which no one really looks at you or hears what you have to say – maybe some of us can. But then imagine you’re a child, and not really able to make sense of the world that goes on around you and the complex feelings and experiences you have. How do you give all these things a name? Mirroring would help you interpret your world and yourself.

Multi-tasking on our devices all the time is a sure-fire way to interfere with our ability look our children in the eye, hear what they have to say, sensitively pick up on their feelings, and transmit that sparkle in the eye. The multitasking mode is the opposite of mirroring and of being present.

The lessons that multi-tasking teach our children. This is a complex issue because I DO NOT think that doing some multi-tasking around children will “damage” them. That is ridiculous. From the very beginning of our evolutionary history, moms and dads were doing other things while spending time with the kids. In many cultures today, children are expected to join in with whatever adults are doing, and spend lots of time amusing themselves and playing independently –more perhaps than is expected in the U.S. on average. These sorts of cultural/value/belief differences about how to raise kids are totally ok differences. That is, no child developmentalist will tell you that we should be worried about this.

However, in this particular culture within which I live, many of us raise our children to be individualistic, with beliefs and desires that even from the earliest childhood are prioritized. The flip side of this is that while we are respecting them as individuals, we also should have the goal (I believe) of teaching them to respect and cherish others as individuals. When we multi-task on our devices every time we spend time with our children, I think we are sending at least three messages that in some ways are contradictory to this goal:

1. We don’t need to fully pay attention to other people, or be fully present.

2. When the multi-tasking is about work – there is no boundary between work and personal.

3. Even when we’re with others, it’s normal to be tethered to a device.

So, the advice I give myself goes something like this – “Alright, sometimes I’ll multi-task. I’m busy and have things I just have to do. At the same time, I will keep it to a minimum when I’m with my children and identify times that are sacred, when the devices go off (e.g., bedtime, breakfast, dinner, afternoon play time, etc,…) and stick to this.

This is my best guess at how to handle it. But only time will tell – will the Millennials (and generations beyond) lose some of what we hope all children will learn? – To deeply value others and the time we spend together, and feel deeply valued in return.