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Should you let your teen watch TV while doing homework?

I'm the Parenting Editor at Common Sense Media, and I started blogging to help families navigate the complex world of media and technology in kids' lives. I'm a family-technology expert who specializes in approaching media literacy is...

Is TV affecting your teen's homework performance?

Many teens multitask with media while doing their homework, and most of them think this has no effect on the quality of their work.

Consider the stats:

  • 51 percent of teens say that they often or sometimes watch TV during homework.
  • 50 percent often or sometimes use social media while doing homework.
  • 60 percent often or sometimes text during homework.
  • 76 percent often or sometimes listen to music during homework. (In fact, 50 percent of teens think listening to music helps their work versus 6 percent who think it hurts.)

Most of the research on multitasking has been done with adults and isn't definitive. Some say human brains aren't wired for multitasking and that constant switching among tasks leads to reduced attention spans, an impatient need for instant gratification and the inability to sustain focus. On the other hand, some researchers believe the human brain adapts to its environment and can grow to become efficient at multitasking.

The challenge for parents is figuring out what's normal — but frustrating — teen behavior and what are truly unhealthy study habits. Listening to music while doing homework seems harmless, but many studies have shown that listening to popular music with lyrics can hurt reading comprehension and the ability to do complex tasks — but more zen-like and classical music does not.

If your teens' academics are slipping, that's a red flag. Discuss your concerns and talk about ways to structure homework time, such as turning off cell phones and TV for a certain amount of time or allowing kids to check their texts only after they complete each assignment. Consider asking your kids to write down assignments and have them check each off as they finish them. Maybe offer rewards for finishing in a timely manner, since multitasking tends to make homework time drag on.

If your kid is really having a tough time blocking out distractions and staying focused, you might need some technical assistance. If your kid's school uses a one-to-one device program, ask the teacher if it comes with some time-management software or other controls that allow you to restrict access to non-homework-related sites. If your kid is using your home computer to do work, you might consider a parental-control program, such as OpenDNS or KidsWatch, that lets you separate homework from playtime.

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