A new study suggests that multitasking with high-tech devices such as laptops, smartphones and tablets may harm children’s emotional development.
Researchers from Stanford University found that girls aged eight to 12 who are “media multitaskers” felt less social success, slept less, had more friends their parents perceived as bad influences, and were more likely to report not feeling normal than their peers who spent more time engaged in face-to-face communication.
“The results were upsetting, disturbing, scary,” said Clifford Nass, the founder of Stanford’s Communication between Humans and Interactive Media Lab and author of The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships.
Nass and Roy Pea, a Stanford education professor, surveyed 3,461 girls about how much time they spent watching television, YouTube, and movies, listening to music, reading, doing homework, emailing, posting to social-networking sites, texting, instant-messaging, talking on the phone and video chatting, and how often they did two or more of those activities simultaneously.
The survey also asked the girls how much time they spent in face-to-face conversations with other people. Higher levels of face-to-face communication were associated with greater social success, greater feelings of normalcy, more sleep, and fewer friends who parents judged to be bad influences.
That’s because children learn the difficult task of interpreting emotions by watching the faces of other people, Pea said—something they cannot do if they’re staring at a smartphone.
“When we media-multitask, we’re not really paying attention to the people around us and we get in a habit of not paying attention, and thus when I’m talking with you, I may be hearing the words but I’m missing all the rich, critical, juicy stuff at the heart of emotional and social life,” said Nass, who began his research into high-tech multitasking when, as a resident fellow in a Stanford dorm, he noticed that his students were constantly online while talking, listening or doing other things.
The study, which is being published this week in the journal Developmental Psychology, is a follow-up to earlier research that found media multitaskers were paying a mental price for trying to do more than one thing at a time.