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12 July 2016

Slow Down! The Downside of Media Multitasking

Keywords: education, media, multitasking, teens, North America, survey, technology,

Teens love to use multiple media at a time, for example instant messaging with friends while watching TV. A Psychonomic Bulletin & Review study investigates this “media multitasking” phenomenon. It shows that media multitasking is related to poorer academic performance and more impulsive behaviors.

Take aways

  • Media multitasking is associated with:
    • poorer academic achievement in math and English tests;
    • lower working memory capacity;
    • more impulsive behavior;
    • having the idea that intelligence and ability cannot be improved through, for example, hard work and dedication.
  • Taken together, research findings suggest that teens’ media behavior outside of school is related to their performance in the classroom.

Study information

  • The question?

    How is media multitasking related to the cognitive performance of teens with different backgrounds?

  • Who?

    73 12 to 16-year-old teens from after-school programs and middle schools in the Greater Boston area (mean age: 14 years; 51% were boys) from various backgrounds, such as African-American, Latino/a, Caucasian, Asian and Native American/Hawaiian. Half of the teens came from low-income families

  • Where?

    United States

  • How?

    The researchers gave a brief presentation about the study and gave the students flyers to take home. Once families indicated the teens were willing to participate, teens were invited to indicate how much time they spent using various media. Also, scores for math and English language were administrated. Then, participants had to complete more tasks and questionnaires such as working memory tasks and verbal and calculating understanding tasks. Finally, participants indicated whether they believed that intelligence can or cannot be changed.

Facts and findings

  • Teens reported the amount of time they used all different kind of mediums together during a week. This was remarkably high, with an average of 149 hours a week. The most heavily used medium was television, with an average of 12 hours a week.
  • Girls and teens from lower income families multitasked slightly more often. There was no difference between younger and older teens. 
  • The more teens multitasked with various media, the worse they performed on tests in Math and English. 
  • Moreover, the more teens multitasked, the lower working memory capacity they displayed. 
  • Multitasking was also associated with a so-called ‘growth mindset’. This means that teens who multitask a lot, were less likely to think that intelligence and ability can be developed through hard work and dedication. 
  • The more teens multitasked, the more impulsive they were. 
  • Remarkable note: Media multitasking involves switching of attention between multiple sources. Therefore, it was expected that adolescents who multitasked a lot would have trained and enhanced their working memory. However, this study suggested the opposite effect.
  • Critical Note: We should interpret the results with caution as the direction of cause and effect is not clear. Therefore, simple interventions such as regulating the amount that adolescents multitask their media may not increase their test scores.