Brain Drain

They're the best parallel processors the world has ever seen, able to use four types of media simultaneously, compared to the one-media-per-session limit of Gen X-ers. No doubt this super-efficient multitasking ability, documented by Carat, helps the 18-24s as they text friends at the same time as they pay bills, all the while tivo-ing through the ads on "The Hills." But do they see the extra ram as a boon? Or do the constant distractions prevent them from concentrating as intensely as they'd like? We asked a 23-year-old journalist, Lauren Berger, to document her own ability to multitask:

When I sat down to write this account, I thought it only appropriate to turn on the television, run through my favorite iTunes play list, and sign onto my aim account. About an hour later, with only that first sentence written, I realized that perhaps simultaneous media usage wasn't always the most constructive habit.

Constructive or not, I'm hardly alone. More than two-thirds of 15,000 people who participated in a recent media study by BIGresearch admitted to multitasking while watching TV, reading the newspaper or surfing the Web. Obviously, I'm only one of a number of media junkies taking my habit to the next level.

As a 23-year-old fact-checker and freelance writer for a national consumer publication, I spend the weekday hours between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. glued to my office chair, not unlike many other media and advertising professionals.

In addition to these bread-and-butter tasks, I tend to communicate with co-workers (many of whom are located on separate floors) via instant message and e-mail. At the same time, while I am checking my three e-mail accounts every five minutes, I can also squeeze in quick conversations with friends on Google chat.

So what does all of this mean? Well, at any given moment during the workday, I'm likely clicking back and forth between six open Web windows, two Word documents, and three IM conversations (in addition to using the phone for fact-checking and speaking to various PR representatives).

Overwhelming as it may seem, this hyper-speed multitasking has become a normal part of my daily routine. In fact, it is during those rare moments when my screen is not filled with blinking messages and Web pages that I start to think that something is wrong.

Luckily, there is always some music to fill such a void. One of the perks of my writing gig involves listening to the music of several bands that are set to play local concerts, and capturing their sound in an evocative preview for readers. I have official license to rock out on my headphones (as long as I still answer telephone calls, and check for online messages).

That the 18-24 age group spends more minutes per day than any other group on instant messaging, mobile phones, music, video use, and game consoles seems unsurprising. This finding, one of many from Ball State University's "Middleton Media Studies," points to a generation of multitasking junkies who are increasingly dissatisfied with the single media model. Constantly craving stimulation, we are disturbed by a sense of inefficiency when engaged in one task at a time.

At the end of a typical weekday, my roommate, Janna, and I sink into our couch, trade work stories and discuss dinner options. After admitting that neither one of us wants to cook, we'll likely search through the online Menu Pages and order in. Meanwhile, an evening's worth of tivo'd programs, ranging from "Planet Earth" to "House" and "Grey's Anatomy," is rolling.

One would imagine that spending eight consecutive hours in front of a computer screen would be enough, but this isn't the case. Janna and I set our laptops down side-by-side on the living-room table to pick up our multitasking where we left off. (This, despite a 2006 Bridge Ratings Youth Study asserting that just 15 percent of 15- to 24-year-olds engage in other forms of media while watching television.) We, on the other hand, continue to check end-of-day blog posts, scrutinize endless MySpace profiles, and send e-mails to friends around the country. And, thanks to our DVR, we know we can rewind if we miss a crucial plot point - or, in my case, pause to scour the Internet Movie Database to prove that, yes, How I Met Your Mother's Jason Segel is, indeed, the same actor who played Kyle in Dead Man on Campus.

These evenings, complete with cell-phone conversations and occasional music sampling and purchasing sessions, have become an extension of my hundred-clicks-per-minute day. The thing I notice now, however, is that on at least three separate occasions, I will have to stop what I'm doing to look up and ask Janna, "Wait, what did you say?" In fact, separate new research by Oxford University and the University of Illinois, shows that many people don't perform as well when they work on more than one task at a time, according to a recent New York Times article.

While multitasking is vital to my daily routine, it seems to have shortened my attention span. True, I am connected to more people than ever before. But at the cost of being able to seriously listen to what they are saying? That's a steep price to pay.

In the end, after several failed attempts to juggle media distractions and my writing assignment, I head into my room, shut off the music and sign offline. Perhaps concentrating on one task at a time is not such a bad idea after all. Focusing on the single Word document on my screen, the words finally start flowing.