Clifford Nass, Roy Pea, and the rest of the circle in the Stanford communications and education programs do some really interesting work on multitasking, our attitudes to computers, and the emotional impact of being online. Their latest study [available here behind a firewall] looks at how multitasking and heavy media use affects the social and emotional lives of 8-12 year-old girls, and the results are striking.
Tweenage girls who spend endless hours watching videos and multitasking with digital devices tend to be less successful with social and emotional development…. But these unwanted effects might be warded off with something as simple as face-to-face conversations with other people.
The researchers... surveyed 3,461 girls, ages 8 to 12, about their electronic diversions and their social and emotional lives. "The results were upsetting, disturbing, scary," Nass said.
The girls, all subscribers to Discovery Girls magazine, took the survey online, detailing the time they spent watching video (television, YouTube, movies,) listening to music, reading, doing homework, emailing, posting to Facebook or MySpace, texting, instant messaging, talking on the phone and video chatting – as well as how often they were doing two or more of those activities simultaneously.
The girls' answers showed that multitasking and spending many hours watching videos and using online communication were statistically associated with a series of negative experiences: feeling less social success, not feeling normal, having more friends whom parents perceive as bad influences and sleeping less.
Fortunately, this isn't one of those studies that just concludes that the sky is falling. Indeed, the solution to the problem turns out to be rather straightforward:
For the negative effects of online gorging, "There seems to be a pretty powerful cure, a pretty powerful inoculant, and that is face-to-face communication," Nass said.
"Kids in the 8-to-12-year-old range who communicate face-to-face very frequently, show much better social and emotional development, even if they're using a great deal of media."...
Higher levels of face-to-face communication were associated with greater social success, greater feelings of normalcy, more sleep and fewer friends whom parents judged to be bad influences. Children learn the difficult task of interpreting emotions by watching the faces of other people, Pea said.
This sounds really easy, but paying attention to someone else-- really doing it, not just giving them enough of your attention to decode their words-- actually requires work. Parents knows this, both from trying to get older kids to pay attention to them-- and in the energy they have to mobilize to look at a kid's drawing for the billionth goddamn time when all you want to do is read the paper.