Media Multitasking

Coinciding with the release of the Pediatrics Supplement on November 1, 2017, Children and Screens hosted an interdisciplinary summit with pediatric media experts, researchers, advocates, government agencies, and policymakers, on what is known and what still needs to be learned about the relationship between kids and screens. The following summarizes Supplement findings shared at the summit:

Research Summary

Estimates of media use among teens are staggering: approximately eight hours, or one-third of each 24-hour day, is the average amount of time a teen engages with media. A large portion of this time is spent using multiple media simultaneously, or “media multitasking.” Researchers are beginning to find signs that multitasking is associated with lower cognitive ability, impulsivity, and social deficits. Investigations are also beginning to reveal differences in brain structure between individuals who multitask frequently and those who multitask occasionally or rarely.

Learning environments are not exempt from media multitasking, as 91% of university students text while in class, and children as young as age five multitask while doing homework. Media multitasking has been shown to negatively impact the quality of learning, with speed, accuracy, and depth of learning all reduced in quality when students attempted to multitask. Even one-year-olds who were exposed to background television noise showed lower attentional control at age four than those who were not exposed.

Researchers are just beginning to investigate the impacts of media multitasking upon learning, and the need for more research continues to escalate. As media usage becomes increasingly ubiquitous among teens, new findings will help with increasing understanding and developing strategies for addressing media multitasking among teens.

FAQs[1]

Is all this multitasking with media causing us to become more distracted, more impulsive, and to learn more poorly?

We do not yet know. Researchers are just beginning to look at younger people to determine whether the brain and behavioral differences show up before the media multitasking behavior develops (which would suggest that a pre-disposition leads to media multitasking), or whether media multitasking precedes the brain and behavior differences (which would suggest that heavier media multitasking may cause the differences). It is also likely that these phenomena feed into each other. Until we do know, we would be wise to be thoughtful about our media multitasking behavior.

Is all multitasking—not just multitasking with media—associated with these cognitive, psychological, brain, and academic differences?

These findings are specific to when people multitask with multiple media streams. However, there are plenty of studies showing that when we learn under conditions of distraction (whether or not media are involved), our learning is shallower and less flexible.

What should I tell my child who is highly confident that she studies better with the TV on in the background?

Confidence and performance are not always related. Just because someone is confident in their ability to multitask with media doesn’t mean that they are good at it. In our review paper, we discuss many studies demonstrating that students’ ability to learn with media in the background is impaired. There are many examples, including studies showing TV in the background impairs students’ ability to comprehend information and respond accurately and quickly to homework questions. Likewise, responding to instant/text messages during studying has been shown to dramatically slow down students’ ability to complete homework.

Key Takeaways[1]

  • Researchers are finding that how many media streams one simultaneously juggles (‘media multitasking’) is related to differences in brain and behavioral profiles.
  • Compared to lighter media multitaskers, heavier media multitaskers show differences in cognition (e.g., poorer attention and memory), psychosocial behavior (e.g., increased impulsivity), and brain structure (e.g., reduced volume in a part of the brain that is associated with controlling one’s thoughts and emotions). Furthermore, research indicates that multitasking with media during learning (in class or at home) can negatively affect academic outcomes.
  • We do not yet know whether heavier media multitasking is causing these cognitive, psychological, neural, and learning differences, or whether people with these pre-existing differences tend to media multitask more heavily. Until this is known, we would be wise to be thoughtful about the amount of media multitasking in ourselves, our students, and our children.

Guidelines for Parents[1]

  • Turn mobile devices off during class and other learning activities. College students learn less when dividing attention between listening to lectures and interacting with handheld devices, such as when sending/receiving text messages or when using social media. Media multitasking with mobile devices and computer applications also appears to reduce reading efficiency as well as problem-solving accuracy. Therefore, encourage children to leave mobile devices (or at least notifications) off or put devices away during classes and other learning activities. Children should use planned breaks after completing a given activity to respond to text and social-media messages, rather than letting device notifications disrupt them in the middle of that activity.[2]
  • Turn television off during schoolwork time. Just as intermittent device notifications and task-switching can disrupt learning activities, so too can background television. School-age children complete work more slowly and less accurately when they work with a television program in the background. Background television also reduces reading comprehension. Therefore, discourage children from doing homework while watching television or in a room where someone else is watching television. Remind children that they will complete their homework more quickly if they do it distraction-free, leaving them more time to watch television or do other entertainment activities later on.[3]
  • Turn television off when no one is watching. Background television affects even the youngest children, particularly during toy play — the cognitive work of infancy and early childhood. For instance, infants’ attentional focus is reduced when they play in the presence of background television. Save television
    programs for naptimes and bedtimes to the extent possible. Of course, it can be a challenge to completely avoid screens throughout the day. In these cases, turn off the television when no one is watching it rather than leave it running all day long. The most important goal should be ensuring that children have at least some time every day to play with toys and interact with caregivers without the distraction of background television.[4]

Sources

[1] Uncapher, M. R., Lin, L.,  Rosen, L. D., Kirkorian, H.L., Baron, N.S., Bailey, K., Cantor, J., Strayer, D.L., Parsons, T.D., & Wagner, A.D. (2017). Media Multitasking and Cognitive, Psychological, Neural, and Learning DifferencesPediatrics, 140(140S2). doi:10.1542/peds.2016-1758D

[2] Uncapher, M. R., Lin, L.,  Rosen, L. D., Kirkorian, H.L., Baron, N.S., Bailey, K., Cantor, J., Strayer, D.L., Parsons, T.D., & Wagner, A.D. (2017). Media Multitasking and Cognitive, Psychological, Neural, and Learning DifferencesPediatrics, 140(140S2). doi:10.1542/peds.2016-1758D

  1. Adler, R. F., & Benbunan-Fich, R. (2013). Self-interruptions in discretionary multitasking. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(4), 1441-1449.
  2. Bowman, L. L., Levine, L. E., Waite, B. M., & Gendron, M. (2010). Can students really multitask? An experimental study of instant messaging while reading. Computers & Education, 54(4), 927-931.
  3. Carrier, L. M., Rosen, L. D., Cheever, N. A., & Lim, A. F. (2015). Causes, effects, and practicalities of everyday multitasking. Developmental Review, 35, 64-78.
  4. Rosen, L. D., Carrier, L. M., & Cheever, N. A. (2013). Facebook and texting made me do it: Media-induced task-switching while studying. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(3), 948-958.
  5. Rosen, L. D., Lim, A. F., Carrier, L. M., & Cheever, N. A. (2011). An empirical examination of the educational impact of text-message induced task switching in the classroom: Educational implications and strategies to enhance learning. Psicologia Educativa (Spanish Journal of Educational Psychology), 17, 163–177.
  6. Wood, E., Zivcakova, L., Gentile, P., Archer, K., De Pasquale, D., & Nosko, A. (2012). Examining the impact of off-task multi-tasking with technology on real-time classroom learning. Computers & Education, 58(1), 365-374.

[3] Uncapher, M. R., Lin, L.,  Rosen, L. D., Kirkorian, H.L., Baron, N.S., Bailey, K., Cantor, J., Strayer, D.L., Parsons, T.D., & Wagner, A.D. (2017). Media Multitasking and Cognitive, Psychological, Neural, and Learning DifferencesPediatrics, 140(140S2). doi:10.1542/peds.2016-1758D

  1. Adler, R. F., & Benbunan-Fich, R. (2013). Self-interruptions in discretionary multitasking. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(4), 1441-1449.
  2. Lee, J., Lin, L., & Robertson, T. (2012). The impact of media multitasking on learning. Learning, Media and Technology, 37, 94–104.
  3. Lin, L., Lee, J., & Robertson, T. (2011). Reading while watching video: The effect of video content on reading comprehension and media multitasking ability. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 45, 183–201.
  4. Pool, M. M., Van der Voort, T.H.A., Beentjes, J. W., & Koolstra, C. M. (2000). Background television as an inhibitor of performance on easy and difficult homework assignments. Communication Research, 27(3), 293-326.

[4] Uncapher, M. R., Lin, L.,  Rosen, L. D., Kirkorian, H.L., Baron, N.S., Bailey, K., Cantor, J., Strayer, D.L., Parsons, T.D., & Wagner, A.D. (2017). Media Multitasking and Cognitive, Psychological, Neural, and Learning DifferencesPediatrics, 140(140S2). doi:10.1542/peds.2016-1758D

  1. Schmidt, M. E., Pempek, T. A., Kirkorian, H. L., Lund, A. F., & Anderson, D. R. (2008). The effects of background television on the toy play behavior of very young children. Child Development, 79, 1137-1151.
  2. Setliff, A. S., & Courage, M. L. (2011). Background television and infants’ allocation of their attention during toy play. Infancy, 16, 611–639.