Cyber Savvy Mom: Multitasking on screens stressful, distracting for teens

Joan Goodchild
Switchtasking, changing back and forth between multiple screens, can cause stress, anxiety and be distracting for children and teens learning remotely.

Studies continue to show a direct correlation between screen time and the decline in teen mental health. COVID-19 and related quarantines and lockdowns have only accelerated technology use among kids in the last year. For many students learning remotely there are fewer academic responsibilities and often no opportunity to participate in athletics or other extracurricular activities. Together these factors have led to an increase in rates of teenage depression and anxiety.

Another stressor for kids due to pervasive tech use is multitasking. Dave Crenshaw, author of the newly released book “The Myth of Multitasking: How ‘Doing It All’ Gets Nothing Done” says multitasking hurts young minds by messing with both focus and productivity.

“A lot of studies have been done about the negative correlation between teens and social media, what I’m seeing even goes a step further,” said Crenshaw. “No matter what teens are doing on their phones, it’s the continual switchtasking between their phones and the world around them that is creating a major source of stress.”

We caught up with Crenshaw for more guidance for parents on how to work with their teens to address this increase in stress and anxiety. 

You mention that teens need to reduce “switchtasking.” What is this and why is it bad for young people?

Switchtasking is the continual jumping between screens and tasks.  We constantly switch our attention between all of our different forms of technology, the real world, and our to-do list.  It sometimes feels like we're getting a lot done but it’s actually costing us hours of time each week.

 The more we try to accomplish too much in our day, the more we feel the need to switch from one task to another. This creates a major source of stress for teens and adults.

How is continual switchtasking between phones and the world around creating stress for teens? 

Teens are spending more than seven hours each day on their phones. The pressure to reply to a text immediately or post something new on social media is a near constant distraction that leaves less and less time for schoolwork and other responsibilities. Important tasks like homework get continuously procrastinated until it’s a race against time to complete them ahead of a deadline. 

Screen time has increased significantly during the pandemic for many students learning remotely.  This lack of personal interaction has led to a spike in teenage depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. In quarantine, the increased screen time and reduced physical activity and in-person interactions have increased switchtasking and led to increased anxiety and other problems within teens.

What do you recommend parents do in order to help their kids get away from this kind of behavior? 

Start by setting an example by putting away your phone when talking to your children.  When you set screen time guidelines for yourself, you reinforce your message to your teen. Work with your kids to establish good study habits that will allow them to get more done in less time.

 How else can parents work with their teens to establish screen time guidelines?

First, understand that it’s okay and even normal in our digital world that kids spend time on screens. In many ways, it’s an opportunity to connect socially, especially during the pandemic.

Recreational screen time is useful provided it’s done on a schedule and limited to a reasonable amount of time. For example, my kids can play video games each day, but it’s limited to a specific time of day and no more than 1 hour total. By giving kids permission to use screens this way, you help them learn to distinguish between using screens for recreation and using screens for work, which is an essential life skill for the years ahead. 

Since we are all using phones and screens these days, how can we hold ourselves accountable when it comes to device use?

Set a positive example. What you do speaks louder than what you say. Setting screen time guidelines for yourself will reinforce your message to your teen. 

Build relationships. If you switchtask when someone is talking to you, you're telling them that they're unimportant. Our kids need to know that they are important; certainly more important than whatever it is you're doing on the phone. That will help them feel loved and validated.

Create a time budget. When possible, create blocks of time in your and your children’s day where you focus on one activity. Do the important things like work and school first, and then move on to passion projects and family time before allowing some dedicated time for everyone to look at their screens.  The end result of that focus is that everyone will have more time in their day and spend more of that time together. 

Do you have concerns about your teen multitasking with screens and technology? Drop me a line at and tell me your thoughts.