Over the past decade, academic research has increasingly examined issues of multitasking and distraction as people try to squeeze more activities into their busy lives. Prior to the Internet age, some cognition science research focused on how behavior might be better understood, improved and made more efficient in business, hospital or other high-pressure settings. But as digital technology has become ubiquitous in many people’s daily routines — and as multitasking has become a “lifestyle” of sorts for many younger people — researchers have tried to assess how humans are coping in this highly connected environment and how “chronic multitasking” may diminish our capacity to function effectively.
In 2009, a Stanford University study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers,” provided some of the most definitive evidence yet of the perils of multitasking in a digital age. It was subsequently cited hundreds of times and raised many unanswered questions and myriad research directions to pursue. But one of the study’s co-authors, Clifford Nass, notes that scholarship has remained firm in the overall assessment: “The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking.”
Scholars from many different disciplines are designing experimental and observational studies of all kinds to assess how we may be changing our mental habits. As the Pew Internet & American Life Project has found in conversations with experts on the subject, the very idea of “multitasking” continues to be debated and refined. The topic has also produced important book-length meditations informed by research, such as Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and William Powers’s Hamlet’s Blackberry.
Of particular interest to researchers have been the habits of, and outcomes for, young persons — the so-called “Net Generation” or “digital natives.” (New research from students themselves suggests a higher rate of “supertaskers” — those who claim to thrive while multitasking — among younger cohorts than has been previously reported.) Research in the past few years has focused on how social networking technologies such as Facebook might affect offline performance and learning. Survey research from institutions such as the Kaiser Family Foundation and Pew Research can also complement the academic studies on the way teens and Millennials are living highly connected lives.
Below are more than a dozen representative studies in these areas:
Findings: The study used experiments to compare heavy media multitaskers to light media multitaskers in terms of their cognitive control and ability to process information…. 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. 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.” 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.”
Abstract: “This study investigated whether changes in the technological/social environment in the United States over time have resulted in concomitant changes in the multitasking skills of younger generations. One thousand, three hundred and nineteen Americans from three generations were queried to determine their at-home multitasking behaviors. An anonymous online questionnaire asked respondents to indicate which everyday and technology-based tasks they choose to combine for multitasking and to indicate how difficult it is to multitask when combining the tasks. Combining tasks occurred frequently, especially while listening to music or eating. Members of the ‘Net Generation’ reported more multitasking than members of ‘Generation X,’ who reported more multitasking than members of the ‘Baby Boomer’ generation. The choices of which tasks to combine for multitasking were highly correlated across generations, as were difficulty ratings of specific multitasking combinations. The results are consistent with a greater amount of general multitasking resources in younger generations, but similar mental limitations in the types of tasks that can be multitasked.”
Abstract: “Theory suggests that driving should be impaired for any motorist who is concurrently talking on a cell phone. But is everybody impaired by this dual-task combination? We tested 200 participants in a high-fidelity driving simulator in both single- and dual-task conditions. The dual task involved driving while performing a demanding auditory version of the operation span (OSPAN) task. Whereas the vast majority of participants showed significant performance decrements in dual-task conditions (compared with single-task conditions for either driving or OSPAN tasks), 2.5% of the sample showed absolutely no performance decrements with respect to performing single and dual tasks. In single-task conditions, these ‘supertaskers’ scored in the top quartile on all dependent measures associated with driving and OSPAN tasks, and Monte Carlo simulations indicated that the frequency of supertaskers was significantly greater than chance. These individual differences help to sharpen our theoretical understanding of attention and cognitive control in naturalistic settings.”
Abstract: “Electronic communication is emotionally gratifying, but how do such technological distractions impact academic learning? The current study observed 263 middle school, high school and university students studying for 15 minutes in their homes. Observers noted technologies present and computer windows open in the learning environment prior to studying plus a minute-by-minute assessment of on-task behavior, off-task technology use and open computer windows during studying. A questionnaire assessed study strategies, task-switching preference, technology attitudes, media usage, monthly texting and phone calling, social networking use and grade point average (GPA). Participants averaged less than six minutes on task prior to switching most often due to technological distractions including social media, texting and preference for task-switching. Having a positive attitude toward technology did not affect being on-task during studying. However, those who preferred to task-switch had more distracting technologies available and were more likely to be off-task than others. Also, those who accessed Facebook had lower GPAs than those who avoided it. Finally, students with relatively high use of study strategies were more likely to stay on-task than other students. The educational implications include allowing students short ‘technology breaks’ to reduce distractions and teaching students metacognitive strategies regarding when interruptions negatively impact learning.”
Abstract: “In a survey about the future of the Internet, technology experts and stakeholders were fairly evenly split as to whether the younger generation’s always-on connection to people and information will turn out to be a net positive or a net negative by 2020. They said many of the young people growing up hyperconnected to each other and the mobile Web and counting on the Internet as their external brain will be nimble, quick-acting multitaskers who will do well in key respects. At the same time, these experts predicted that the impact of networked living on today’s young will drive them to thirst for instant gratification, settle for quick choices, and lack patience. A number of the survey respondents argued that it is vital to reform education and emphasize digital literacy. A notable number expressed concerns that trends are leading to a future in which most people are shallow consumers of information, and some mentioned George Orwell’s 1984 or expressed their fears of control by powerful interests in an age of entertaining distractions.”
Findings: The researchers examine how the use of Facebook — and engagement in other forms of digital activity — while trying to complete schoolwork was associated with college students’ grade point averages. Students gave the researchers permission to see their grades. The participant group was 64% female, and 88% were of traditional college age, 18 to 22 years old. The study’s findings include: During coursework, “students spent the most time using Facebook, searching for non-school-related information online, and emailing. While doing schoolwork outside of class, students reported spending an average of 60 minutes per day on Facebook, 43 minutes per day searching, and 22 minutes per day on email. Lastly, students reported sending an average of 71 texts per day while doing schoolwork.” The data suggest that “using Facebook and texting while doing schoolwork were negatively predictive of overall GPA.” However, “emailing, talking on the phone, and using IM were not related to overall GPA.”
Abstract: “We investigated whether multitasking with media was a unique predictor of depression and social anxiety symptoms. Participants (N=318) completed measures of their media use, personality characteristics, depression, and social anxiety. Regression analyses revealed that increased media multitasking was associated with higher depression and social anxiety symptoms, even after controlling for overall media use and the personality traits of neuroticism and extraversion. The unique association between media multitasking and these measures of psychosocial dysfunction suggests that the growing trend of multitasking with media may represent a unique risk factor for mental health problems related to mood and anxiety. Further, the results strongly suggest that future research investigating the impact of media use on mental health needs to consider the role that multitasking with media plays in the relationship.”
Abstract: “The aim of the present study was to investigate the effect of social networking sites (SNSs) engagement on cognitive and social skills. We investigated the use of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in a group of young adults and tested their working memory, attentional skills, and reported levels of social connectedness. Results showed that certain activities in Facebook (such as checking friends’ status updates) and YouTube (telling a friend to watch a video) predicted working memory test performance. The findings also indicated that Active and Passive SNS users had qualitatively different profiles of attentional control. The Active SNS users were more accurate and had fewer misses of the target stimuli in the first block of trials. They also did not discriminate their attentional resources exclusively to the target stimuli and were less likely to ignore distractor stimuli. Their engagement with SNS appeared to be exploratory and they assigned similar weight to incoming streams of information. With respect to social connectedness, participants’ self-reports were significantly related to Facebook use, but not Twitter or YouTube use, possibly as the result of greater opportunity to share personal content in the former SNS.”
Findings: The researchers examined how digital media consumption and multitasking may impact social and cognitive development of ’tween girls. Media use included “video, video games, music listening … e-mailing/posting on social media sites, texting/instant messaging, and talking on phones/video chatting.” Researchers used data collected from nearly 3,5000 respondents to an online survey sponsored by Discovery Girls magazine in the summer of 2010. Major findings include: Watching videos, communicating online and media multitasking “were consistently associated with a range of negative socioemotional outcomes…. Face-to-face communication and online communication are not interchangeable.” Despite increased media use by ’tween girls, “no more than 10.1% of respondents ranked online friends more positively than in-person friends for even one item. Even heavy media users tended to derive … positive feelings principally from in-person friends.” Most media use had a neutral or slightly negative correlation with social well-being. In particular, watching videos was strongly associated with more negative feelings. However, “face-to-face communication was positively associated with feelings of social success [and] was consistently associated with a range of positive socioemotional outcomes.”
Abstract: “Because of the social media platform’s widespread adoption by college students, there is a great deal of interest in how Facebook use is related to academic performance. A small number of prior studies have examined the relationship between Facebook use and college grade point average (GPA); however, these studies have been limited by their measures, sampling designs and failure to include prior academic ability as a control variable. For instance, previous studies used non-continuous measures of time spent on Facebook and self-reported GPA. This paper fills a gap in the literature by using a large sample (N = 1,839) of college students to examine the relationship among multiple measures of frequency of Facebook use, participation in Facebook activities, and time spent preparing for class and actual overall GPA. Hierarchical (blocked) linear regression analyses revealed that time spent on Facebook was strongly and significantly negatively related to overall GPA, while only weakly related to time spent preparing for class. Furthermore, using Facebook for collecting and sharing information was positively predictive of the outcome variables while using Facebook for socializing was negatively predictive.”
“Facebook and Academic Performance” Kirschner, Paul A.;Karpinski, Aryn C. Computers in Human Behavior, November 2010, Vol. 26, Issue 6, 1237-1245. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2010.03.024.
Abstract: “There is much talk of a change in modern youth — often referred to as digital natives or Homo Zappiens — with respect to their ability to simultaneously process multiple channels of information. In other words, kids today can multitask. Unfortunately for proponents of this position, there is much empirical documentation concerning the negative effects of attempting to simultaneously process different streams of information showing that such behavior leads to both increased study time to achieve learning parity and an increase in mistakes while processing information than those who are sequentially or serially processing that same information. This article presents the preliminary results of a descriptive and exploratory survey study involving Facebook use, often carried out simultaneously with other study activities, and its relation to academic performance as measured by self-reported Grade Point Average (GPA) and hours spent studying per week. Results show that Facebook users reported having lower GPAs and spend fewer hours per week studying than nonusers.”
Abstract: “College students use information and communication technologies at much higher levels and in different ways than prior generations. They are also more likely to multitask while using information and communication technologies. However, few studies have examined the impacts of multitasking on educational outcomes among students. This study fills a gap in this area by utilizing a large-sample web-based survey of college student technology usage to examine how instant messaging and multitasking affect perceived educational outcomes. Since multitasking can impede the learning process through a form of information overload, we explore possible predictors of academic impairment due to multitasking. Results of this study suggest that college students use instant messaging at high levels, they multitask while using instant messaging, and over half report that instant messaging has had a detrimental effect on their schoolwork. Higher levels of instant messaging and specific types of multitasking activities are associated with students reporting not getting schoolwork done due to instant messaging. We discuss implications of these findings for researchers studying the social impacts of technology and those in higher education administration.”
Findings: The researchers look at how gamers and non-gamers perform simultaneous tasks and whether serious gamers were better at multitasking than non-gamers. The researchers devised three simulations that measured driving speed and safety, multi-object tracking and image search skills. Each simulation had two versions: a single-track version involving only the simulation task; and a dual-track version in which participants were asked trivia questions while completing the simulation. The study’s findings include: “All of the participants … performed worse during the dual-task condition, and there were no differences in how they were affected.” None of the subjects, including both gamers and non-gamers, met the requirements to be classified as supertaskers. The authors suggest that “there are indeed limits to [gaming’s] benefits” and that gamers’ heightened powers of perception may be restricted to one task at a time. The researchers suggest that a gamer’s “heightened visual attention may come at the expense of the attentional resources available to other modalities” such as sound, and that these shortcomings may only emerge when faced with unfamiliar tasks. “This result demonstrates just how detrimental a concurrent distracting task can be,” the authors conclude. “Combined with other, previous evidence … this highlights how important it is for society to understand the limits of attentional processing.”
Abstract: “Demands involving the scheduling and interleaving of multiple activities have become increasingly prevalent, especially for women in both their paid and unpaid work hours. Despite the ubiquity of everyday requirements to multitask, individual and gender-related differences in multitasking have gained minimal attention in past research. In two experiments, participants completed a multitasking session with four gender-fair monitoring tasks and separate tasks measuring executive functioning (working memory updating) and spatial ability (mental rotation). In both experiments, males outperformed females in monitoring accuracy. Individual differences in executive functioning and spatial ability were independent predictors of monitoring accuracy, but only spatial ability mediated gender differences in multitasking. Menstrual changes accentuated these effects, such that gender differences in multitasking (and spatial ability) were eliminated between males and females who were in the menstrual phase of the menstrual cycle but not between males and females who were in the luteal phase. These findings suggest that multitasking involves spatiotemporal task coordination and that gender differences in multiple-task performance reflect differences in spatial ability.”
Tags: technology, youth, Facebook, research roundup