The digital age has led to us being overwhelmed with sources of information and entertainment. It is unfashionable to suggest that it might be unproductive to take advantage of multiple data streams to interact with the virtual world, listen to your favourite music and study simultaneously.
However in 1973, Kahneman proposed that the amount of attention that an individual can deploy at any time is limited. It is known as the ‘capacity model of attention’ and is based on the assumptions that attention can be freely allocated to activities based on their arousal level and that your total attention is finite. The model has been used to explain research findings on the effect of background television on cognitive performance. While recent research has demonstrated that students read and study better in silence; though if they must listen to music then certain types are better than others, for instance light classical music has a less deleterious effect than hip hop music – maybe because it has a lower arousal level.
So multi-tasking is not conducive to high quality output or efficient working. Many people have arrived at this conclusion by the time they graduate from University or have spent a few years in a mentally demanding job. However, it is an uphill task to convince young people that they would perform better and finish tasks faster without the distractions made readily available by the digital age.
Or that is safer not to cross the road while listening to music and texting your friends!
For many references to the research literature see Chou, P. M-T., Attention drainage effect: how background music effects concentration in Taiwanese college students, Journal of Scholarship of Teaching & Learning, 10(1):36-46, 2010. http://josotl.indiana.edu/issue/view/158
Kahneman, D., Attention and effect, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1973.