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Teens' Multitasking Talents Emerge Late

Ability to Multitask May Not Fully Mature Until Late in Adolescence

WebMD Health News

May 18, 2005 -- If your young adolescent seems single-minded and unable to focus on more than one thing at a time, just wait. A new study suggests that multitasking skills don't fully emerge until late in the teenage years.

Researchers tested the multitasking skills of a group of adolescents and found that the ability to juggle many pieces of information continues to develop until late adolescence.

The findings suggest that the frontal cortex, which lies just behind the eyes and controls the brain's ability to think flexibly and sort out competing information, doesn't fully mature until about ages 16-17.

Multitasking Talents Slow to Develop

In the study, which appears in the May/June issue of Child Development, researchers evaluated the ability of a group of 107 adolescents aged 9 to 20 to complete several tests designed to measure the functioning of their frontal cortex.

For example, one test involved recognizing faces that had been shown to them earlier. This allowed researchers to assess the participants' working memory or ability to use recognition or recall to guide future actions.

Researchers found this ability to remember single pieces of information to guide actions appeared to develop at ages 11 to 12.

In another test, the adolescents were asked to remember multiple pieces of information in the correct order and sometimes reorder the information. This ability developed until ages 13 to 15.

The third series of tests required the participants to search for hidden items in a manner that required multitasking and strategic thinking.

The results from these tests showed that the ability to multitask continued to develop until ages 16 to 17.

Teenage Brain Still Maturing

Researchers say the study lends support to brain imaging data that suggests that the frontal cortex doesn't fully mature until late adolescence.

"When we use tasks that would be challenging even for a healthy adult, it becomes apparent that teenagers are still developing the cognitive skills necessary to efficiently manage multiple pieces of information simultaneously," says researcher Monica Luciana, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis, in a news release.

"These findings have important implications for parents and teachers who might expect too much in the way of strategic or self-organized thinking, especially from older teenagers," says Luciana. "We need to keep their cognitive limitations in mind, especially when adolescents are confronted with demanding situations in the classroom, at home, or in social gatherings."

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