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Cognitive control in media multitaskers

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As information and communications technologies have proliferated, the practice of media multitasking has become increasingly prevalent. Debates over the effects — both the potential for reduced cognitive depth and the real-world outcomes of “distraction” — continue to play out.

A 2009 study by Stanford University published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers, used experiments to compare heavy media multitaskers to light media multitaskers in terms of their cognitive control and ability to process information.

The study’s findings include:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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[s] 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.” The findings raise profound, still-unanswered questions about human cognition in the future: “If the growth of multitasking across individuals leads to or encourages the emergence of a qualitatively different, breadth-biased profile of cognitive control, then the norm of multiple input streams will have significant consequences for learning, persuasion, and other media effects. If, however, these differences in cognitive control abilities and strategies stem from stable individual differences, many individuals will be increasingly unable to cope with the changing media environment.”

Keywords: technology, cognition


    Writer: | Last updated: August 1, 2011

    Citation: Ophira, Eyal; Nass, Clifford; Wagner, Anthony D. “Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers,” PNAS: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, August 24, 2009. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0903620106.

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the Stanford University study "Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers."

    1. Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
    2. Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
    3. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

    Read the issue-related Time article "Supertaskers: Why Some Can Do Two Things at Once."

    1. If you were to write an analysis piece incorporating both the article and the study, what key points would you draw on? How are the two in conversation, or in conflict, and how should a reporter assign relative weight to the two?

    Newswriting assignments

    1. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
    4. Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.