Media multitasking

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Concurrent use of multiple digital media streams, commonly known as media multitasking, has been shown to be associated with depressive symptoms and social anxiety in a single study of 318 participants.[1] A 2018 review found that whilst the literature is sparse and inconclusive, overall, heavy media multitaskers do have poorer performance in several cognitive domains.[2] One of the authors commented that the data doesn't "unambiguously show that media multitasking causes a change in attention and memory," but that it is not efficient, and one may argue to multitask less on digital media.[3]

Much of this multitasking is not inherently coupled or coordinated, except by the user. For example, a user may be browsing the Web, listening to music playing video games, using e-mail, or talking on the phone while watching TV.[4] More directly coordinated forms of media multitasking are emerging in the form of "coactive media" and particularly "coactive TV".

Cognitive distraction[edit]

A touchstone 2009 study by Stanford University used experiments to compare heavy media multitaskers to light media multitaskers in terms of their cognitive control and ability to process information.[5] Findings from the experiment include: 1) When intentionally distracting elements were added to experiments, heavy media multitaskers were on average 77 milliseconds slower than their light media multitasker counterparts at identifying changes in patterns; 2) In a longer-term memory test that invited participants to recall specific elements from earlier experiments, the high media multitaskers more often falsely identified the elements that had been used most frequently as intentional distracters; 3) In the presence of distracting elements, high media multitaskers were 426 milliseconds slower than their counterparts to switch to new activities and 259 milliseconds slower to engage in a new section of the same activity. The researchers conclude that the experiments "suggest that heavy media multitaskers are distracted by the multiple streams of media they are consuming, or, alternatively, that those who infrequently multitask are more effective at volitionally allocating their attention in the face of distractions".[6] This slowing down of performance that can be seen when people multitask is called interference in the cognitive bottleneck theory (CBT).[7] According to this theory, people have only a limited amount of cognitive resources, which allows us only to focus and complete one task at a time. When people try to do several things at once, or multitask, their performance suffers because the completion of their tasks slowed down, due to a constraint called a cognitive bottleneck. A good metaphor to describe the cognitive bottleneck is that of a traffic jam. When an accident occurs on a highway, and several lanes of cars are forced to pass through a single lane, the traffic slows down. Over the decades of research, researchers tried to disprove this theory. Although scientists found a handful of activities that people can do at the same time without slowing, these activities are so simple and so far removed from what people normally do, they cannot be used as support for people's ability to multitask. In fact, a top team of researchers reviewed the extensive literature on multitasking and concluded that hundreds of studies show that slowing will happen when people try to multitask, and even many of the studies that were designed to show that people can multitask without interference still showed that they cannot multitask. Therefore, these researchers warn people that when they attempt to multitask, especially when doing complex and potentially dangerous tasks (such as driving and using their cell-phones to talk or text), they will always encounter the bottleneck which will cause their performance to suffer, either by being slower than usual or by making more mistakes.[8]

A related article, "Breadth-biased versus focused cognitive control in media multitasking behaviors" notes that the prevalence of this phenomenon leads "to a question about the required skills and expertise to function in society. Society with its ever-increasing complexity seems to move people towards juggling among multiple tasks rather than focusing on one task for a long period." Further research, the study's author suggests, will be necessary as the effects on society become more pronounced: "The new technologies are gearing people, especially young people who grow up with digital technologies and wired networks, toward breadth-biased information processing behavior rather than linear in-depth study behavior. A long-term exposure to media multitasking is expected to produce both positive and negative outcomes on cognitive, emotional, and social development."[9]

By generation[edit]

Despite of what research on actual multitasking abilities reviewed above shows, people from younger generations feel that multitasking is easy, even "a way of life", that they are good at it, and they spend a lot of their time engaged in one form of multitasking or another (for example, watching TV while doing homework, listening to music while doing homework, or even all three things at once). This is unlike people from older generations who understand, and openly admit, that they are not very good at multitasking, who see multitasking as difficult, and who therefore don't multitask nearly as much as young people.[10][11]

In the workforce[edit]

Multitasking behaviour in the workforce has been increasing steadily since the 1990s, as people have easier and therefore faster access to information, and communication, through smart technologies that also become cheaper over time. Although multitasking behaviour has a negative impact on performance, the paradox is that organizational productivity is increasing at a high rate nonetheless.[12] Concurrent with increased multitasking in the workforce and the subsequent rise in productivity and just multitasking in general, the literature has witnessed progressively more reports of increased stress, loss of focus,[13] symptoms resembling attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)[14] and even lowering of IQ.[15]

While driving[edit]

Research on media multitasking in real-world settings focuses mostly on using cell-phones while driving. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence to show that talking on a phone while driving is very dangerous, many times leading to crashes, even fatal ones to both drivers and pedestrians. Only 1 hour of talking on a cell-phone per month while driving increases the risk of crashing by 4 to 9 times.[16] On the other hand, people who text while driving are 23 times more likely to be involved in some kind of an accident.[17] A large review of studies on driving while media multitasking showed that using a hands-free phone while driving is just as dangerous as using a hand-held phone, and results in many different driving mistakes including missing stop signs, forgetting to reduce speed when necessary, and following too closely, among many others. Media multitasking with other technologies, including MP3 players, voice-based email, the music system, and even the GPS while driving is just as distracting as using a phone.[18] This is an especially important piece of information considering that using such technologies, including a hands-free phone while driving is legal in most of the states in the U.S.A. and most Canadian provinces. Talking to a person on a cell-phone while driving is not the same as having a conversation with a passenger, as adult passengers (but not children) often warn the driver of possible dangers, or at least stop talking when the driving conditions are tough, to let the driver focus on the road.[19]


Students commonly use multiple portable digital technologies, including laptops, tablets and smartphones with wireless access to the Internet.[20] Students can use technologies in the classroom to multi-task in two specific ways when given the choice: For on-task purposes that supplement learning and ease the learning task, or for off-task purposes such as entertainment of social interaction.[21] Overall, research shows that digital technologies can enhance learning when used as educational tools, as they are affordable and extremely portable. However, research consistently shows that inappropriate multitasking with digital technologies is harmful to student performance.

On-task multitasking[edit]

Students use technology for many diverse on-task purposes including taking notes, conducting literature searches, viewing video/audio files, creating and viewing spreadsheets and PowerPoint slides, completing online tests and assignments, and even texting friends to ask questions about course material.[22] Outside of the classroom, students frequently use technology such as instant messaging to communicate with other students, coordinate group work, share important files and homework, and form peer support groups to vent and improve motivation.[23] Students in grade school[24] and high school[25] benefit most from on-task use of technology. This is largely because at the grade school and high school levels, technology is integrated into the design of the course and the teachers provide the necessary structure and supervision. Such conditions allow students to process information more deeply, apply the newly learned information to new contexts, as well as improve collaboration among students.[26] However, university students do not generally benefit from technology. The results of one study showed no benefits to using laptops in improving student GPA in comparison to students who did not use laptops.[27] Two further studies showed that students who did not use laptops outperformed those who did use laptops.[28][29] Overall, there is a pattern of decreasing effectiveness of using technology for on-task purposes from the grade school level to the university level. This appears to be due to increased freedom of use of technology, combined with lower levels of integration of specific technology in design of specific course material.[30] Additionally, younger students and students from financially disadvantages backgrounds who have high levels of Internet use are at an especially high risk of underperforming.[31]

Off-task multitasking[edit]

A large portion of students uses digital technologies for off-task purposes during classroom lectures, with social networking (especially Facebook), instant messaging, texting, emailing, and web-browsing being used most commonly[22][32] Moreover, young adults multitask more than older adults[33][32] and males multitask more than females[21] for off-task purposes. The results of numerous studies show that high Internet use for off-task purposes is associated with lower GPA.[34][35][36] One experimental study compared the impact of using 4 different technologies for off-task purposes including MSN, email, texting and FacebookTM, to three control groups during real classroom lectures. The three control groups included one group of students who were free to use any amount of technologies as they wished including any on-task or off-task purposes. The other two groups were on-task note-takers who took notes either on paper or on a laptop. The results showed that students in the MSN and FacebookTM conditions scored lower on a memory test than the paper notes control group. When examining the amount of multitasking instead of specific technologies, the results showed that greater levels of multitasking led to progressively lower grades.[37] While all studies show that any kind of off-task multitasking lowers performance, some tasks impair performance more than others. Specifically, social networking is particularly bad for student performance as it leads to higher levels of unfinished assignments and lower GPA.[38][39][40][41][42][37] Moreover, off-task multitasking distracts not only the user, but also neighbouring students.[43][22]

Student multitasking[edit]

An observational study of how students study at home examined student study habits and study strategies. The results showed that most students prefer to task-switch a lot and focus for only approximately 6 minutes before reaching for their favourite digital device. Moreover, the students who enjoyed task-switching did so more often and with more technologies in comparison to students who preferred to focus on a single learning task, and who therefore did not have as many technologies readily available. Consistent with previous studies, students with a preference for focusing and those who used proper study strategies had higher GPA than students who preferred to task-switch.[42] Karpinski and colleagues (2013) compared multitasking behaviours in students from Europe to students from the U.S. They found that only the students from the U.S. were distracted by multitasking to the point that their GPA suffered. This was due to two main reasons: the U.S. students multitasked more than European students and the European students, when engaging in multitasking, were more strategic in their multitasking behaviour as they delayed replying to incoming messages.[44] The concept of "digital metacognition"—awareness of one's usage of and the effects of digital devices—has been proposed as a construct for providing a way to avoid problems with media multitasking while learning.[45]

See also[edit]


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