The next time your teenager is doing his homework while listening to music on his iPod, texting a friend, and instant messaging another friend in the corner of the computer screen, take a pause before you start to yell. While it doesn’t seem fathomable to most of us who didn’t grow up with this amount of media so pervasive (or even available), new research suggests that human multitasking might enable him to focus on the task at hand just fine or even better with so much information coming at him at once.
The study, which took place at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, found that those who are accustomed to using several types of media at once may actually be better than the rest of us at integrating the data processed from more than one sense while executing a specific task.1 It just might be that they are so used to taking in information from several sources at once that their senses, such as vision and hearing, begin to collaborate and assimilate better.
The 63 participants, between the ages of 19 and 28, reported in questionnaires about their typical media usage, both the amount of time spent emailing, texting, instant messaging, listening to music, searching the Internet, social networking, watching online videos, or playing computer games, and how often they engaged in multitasking. Then each volunteer was presented with a visually oriented search problem to test mental acuity. At times, a blip sounded, which did not provide the whereabouts of the item to be found but would indicate a color change.
Those subjects who most commonly multitasked with their media were the most successful at finding the visual target when the tone was played for them. Without the auditory stimulation, they actually were less successful than those who were not frequent media multitaskers. Those comfortable with a steady stream of multiple sources of media coming at them were found to be able to integrate the signals from several senses at once to improve their performance rather than being distracted by one more thing vying for their attention.
However, this is a rare positive finding about the media with which we are all so consumed these days. Much of the previous research has shown that involvement with multiple sources of technology at once can impair focus to the point where it is difficult for the subject to get a particular task accomplished — driving a car while texting being a notable example. It can affect working memory, switching operations, and selective attention abilities.
Of course, since it is mostly the young who are technologically plugged in to this extent, we do have to consider the impact it makes on our kids. A study in 2009 found a link between excess media exposure and depression in teens.2 A 2008 study linked pediatric sleep disorders with too much media time.3 Various studies have found that excessive media time leads to lower grades, behavioral problems, and obesity. In spite of these findings, most parents don’t intervene in the love affair their kids have with technology. A 2010 study found that only 28 percent of parents enforce any sort of limit on their children’s television, and only 36 percent restrict computer time.4
So clearly, even if there are some positive abilities that can be enhanced by media multitasking, there are more than outweighed by the negatives associated with the situation. And, since much of this technology is at least relatively new, we don’t really know anything about the long-term effects of being perpetually wired up, especially in the still-developing brains of our children.
If you can’t move to a remote island, devoid of satellite, cell towers, and Wi-Fi service to get away from all the media exposure for a while, at least try to convince your little culprits to come up for air now and then — literally, if you can, by getting them outside with a tempting hike or bike ride or a simple game of catch. If that’s too much to ask, maybe just encourage them to have some friends come over so their socializing can be face to face instead of always digitally.
Then again, once they allow your kids to start taking the SAT’s while wired up to music and movies — for enhanced data integration — we may have to rethink our recommendation. But until that day …
1 “Multitasking: Not So Bad for You After All?.” Science Daily. 12 April 2012. Accessed 26 April 2012. <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120412105529.htm>.
2 Nauert, Rick. “Excess Media in Teen Years May Cause Depression.” Psych Central. 26 February 2009. Accessed 26 April 2012. <http://psychcentral.com/news/2009/02/06/excess-media-in-teen-years-may-cause-depression/3962.html>.
3 “Children’s Media Use and Sleep Problems: Issues and Unanswered Questions.” Kaiser Family Foundation. 9 June 2008. Accessed 26 April 2012. <http://www.kff.org/entmedia/7674.cfm>.
4 “Daily Media Use Among Children and Teens Up Dramatically From Five Years Ago.” Kaiser Family Foundation. 20 January 2010. Accessed 26 April 2012. <http://www.kff.org/entmedia/entmedia012010nr.cfm>.