Expert Commentary

Media multitasking: Factors that influence audience use of multiple media platforms at once

2015 study published in Media Psychology that examines media multitasking and the conditions under which people are likely to use more than one media platform at a time.

(Pixabay/public domain)

As news organizations work to enhance their digital presence, they are experimenting with ways to improve their audience experience. As technology evolves, readers, viewers and listeners are demanding more than straight facts from a single source of information. With this in mind, journalists are incorporating multiple media platforms into their work to offer audiences more information and context. For example, FRONTLINE creates investigative documentaries that appear on TV. As viewers watch a documentary, they can use their laptops to access additional information on the subject on FRONTLINE’s website. Meanwhile, audience members also can use their mobile phones to interact with FRONTLINE via social media while they view the program. News consumers are increasingly adept at using two or more media platforms simultaneously to explore the topic of a single news story.

As digital technology has become more common, so has this “media multitasking.” As academic scholars study the trend, their findings inevitably will be helpful to newsroom leaders in developing strategies for advertising and audience engagement.

A 2015 study published in Media Psychology, An Observational Study on How Situational Factors Influence Media Multitasking With TV: The Role of Genres, Dayparts, and Social Viewing,” offers new insights about how people use different media while watching television. The study’s authors — Hilde A. M. Voorveld, a professor of communications research at the University of Amsterdam, and Vijay Viswanathan, a professor in the Medill Integrated Marketing Communications program at Northwestern University – also examine some of the factors that influence multitasking among seven types of media, including computers, print publications and phones. For the study, Voorveld and Viswanathan analyzed data based on observations made of 273 adults over several months. These adults were located in the designated market areas of Dallas, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Seattle, Chicago and Indianapolis.

The key findings include:

  • Individuals used more media platforms while watching TV sports than they did while watching TV news, entertainment programs or commercials. Adults used the greatest number of media platforms while channel surfing.
  • Gender, age, college education and income influenced how much someone engaged in media multitasking. Those who tended to do more multitasking were women, younger adults, the college educated and individuals who made less than $30,000 a year.
  • Access to the Internet and a cell phone raised the level of multitasking.
  • Multitasking varied during the day. It happened more often in the morning and decreased as the day progressed.
  • People were more likely to use multiple media platforms concurrently when they were alone than when another person was present in the room.

This study is the first to show that the amount of media multitasking someone does varies based on the type of content they are accessing as well as the time of day and whether other people are present. The authors suggest that future research make use of alternate methods of collecting data – for example, eye-tracking technology – to capture more detailed information about the types of information individuals pay attention to. Because several studies have shown that media multitasking is associated with lower levels of information processing, audiences may retain less information when they are most likely to be involved in media multitasking — when they watch news and sports while they are alone in the mornings.

Related research: A 2010 study published in the Journal of Consumer Behavior, “Tuning In and Tuning Out: Media Multitasking Among Young Consumers,” considers the personal benefits and costs associated with media multitasking. A 2016 study in the Journal of Advertising, “Don’t Distract Me When I’m Media Multitasking: Toward a Theory for Raising Advertising Recall and Recognition,” looks at how using multiple media platforms at once influences a person’s ability to remember advertisements. A December 2015 study in Computers in Human Behavior, “The Consequences of Media Multitasking for Youth: A Review,” examines the results of 56 studies to understand how media multitasking affects adolescents and young adults in areas such as academic performance and sleep.


Keywords: media platforms, news, audience, media psychology, cell phones, mobile devices, television


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