Media multitasking—simultaneously consuming multiple streams of media, such as an eLearning course, email, text messages, and Facebook posts—is common. Or, at least, many people think that they are media multitaskers. Are they? If so, at what cost?
Multiple studies have found that, when people think they are multitasking, they are actually rapidly switching their focus between two (or more) activities or information streams, and their performance suffers as a result. One example is a pair of studies of college students. Those who listened to a lecture while also browsing or engaging in social activities on their laptops scored lower on “traditional measures of memory for lecture content” than students who were not allowed to use their laptops.
In fact, dozens of articles and books, some published nearly 50 years ago, reach the same conclusion.
“Each time we move from hearing music to writing a text or talking to someone, there is a stop/start process that goes on in the brain,” according to Nancy K. Napier, blogging for Psychology Today. “That start/stop/start process is rough on us: Rather than saving time, it costs time (even very small microseconds), it’s less efficient, we make more mistakes, and over time it can be energy sapping.”
So why does the myth persist? People routinely watch two screens and switch among apps on a smartphone while working, watching TV, reading news online, or engaging in eLearning—or another activity that demands focus; the idea of media multitasking has become ubiquitous in Western cultures.
Researcher Eyal Ophir began studying media multitasking when he read repeatedly that young people, in surveys, reported more hours of media consumption daily than was physically possible. The conclusion: They were consuming multiple streams of media simultaneously.
Ophir’s research classified people as “chronic heavy media multitaskers” or “light media multitaskers” based on how often they engaged in media multitasking. He tested the heaviest and lightest multitaskers on a variety of cognitive control abilities.
He did not find that some people actually could pay attention to and absorb multiple media streams at once; rather, he found that those who thought they could “media multitask” were much worse at filtering information than individuals who acknowledged switching among tasks. In other words, heavy media multitaskers were less successful at ignoring irrelevant information—also known as distractions. Even when objects were clearly identified as irrelevant, the heavy media multitaskers had more trouble ignoring them; this worsened as the volume of irrelevant information grew.
Another area where heavy media multitaskers’ performance suffered was in switching focus. It took them longer than light multitaskers to switch between tasks, which, Ophir said, is also a problem with information filtering.
The results “suggest that LMMs [low media multitaskers] have a greater tendency for top-down attentional control, and thus they may find it easier to attentionally focus on a single task in the face of distractions. By contrast, HMMs [high media multitaskers] are more likely to respond to stimuli outside the realm of their immediate task, and thus may have a greater tendency for bottom-up attentional control and a bias toward exploratory, rather than exploitative, information processing.”
Ophir attributes these results to heavy media multitaskers’ having different priorities or goals than light multitaskers: “Where you might say traditionally we value the ability to focus through distractions, they are willing to sacrifice focus in order to make sure they don’t miss an unexpected, but rewarding, surprise.”
In an interview with Avi Solomon, Ophir is careful to emphasize that the findings do not point to a cause. “We can’t say if media multitasking causes these cognitive tendencies, or if people with these cognitive tendencies gravitate to media multitasking.”
Multitasking—or trying to—can lead to cognitive overload, particularly if the different tasks or media streams are processed similarly in the brain. “We use different cognitive resources for processing different stimuli. For example, studies have demonstrated that it’s much easier to remember words while performing a spatial task than while performing a linguistic task. I’d expect that listening to music while trying to perform a musical task would be quite difficult.”
Since much of the media people consume simultaneously demands similar processing, high-media multitaskers might be more prone to cognitive overload. A more efficient approach is to block out distractions while working on a single task, moving on to the next after a set amount of time or after completing the first task. Attending to email or social media is a task that should get its own block of time, perhaps.
That runs counter to how many people work; Ophir said it “demands conscious effort” when he does it. But, he suggested, it is something that could be managed through media interfaces designed with the idea of a “quiet mode” in mind.
Hembrooke, Helene, and Geri Gay. “The Laptop and the Lecture: The Effects of Multitasking in Learning Environments.” Journal of Computing in Higher Education, Vol. 15, No. 1. 2003.
Napier, Nancy K. “The Myth of Multitasking.” Psychology Today, Creativity Without Borders blog. 12 May 2014.
Ophir, Eyal, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner. “Cognitive control in media multitaskers.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 106, No. 37. September 2009.
Solomon, Avi. “Eyal Ophir on the Science of Multitasking.” Boing Boing. 7 November 2011.