Do you often find yourself checking your e-mail, sending text messages and engaging in other media-related activities simultaneously? Unknowingly, your daily functioning might be seriously affected.
The rise of early 21st century technology led to an environment in which people are continuously exposed to multiple streams of information. Especially the younger generation – including me – is constantly engaging in media multitasking behavior. And although I do remember the time that my attention was fully captured by the computer screen when I was allowed to use the internet every once in a while (via dial-up access), such undivided focus nowadays seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Overall, I feel like I am doing quite well at juggling between all sorts of activities, but is this really true? Recent studies suggest that my optimism is misplaced: media multitasking might have a considerable influence on performance, cognition and well-being in adolescents and young adults.
A review study by Carrier (2015) demonstrates that several aspects with respect to academic performance and learning are negatively affected:
- Learning during school hours
- Mastery of the material
Especially when students make use of social media platforms and instant messaging during class and self-study, their memory of the material decreases. Consequently, the required time to master a topic increases and they therefore do not always reach their full potential. This is also reflected in their grades: Students that report to show media multitasking behavior more often have lower grades than students who do this less frequently.
Furthermore, impairments are not limited to school context. Several recent studies suggest that media multitasking might have an impact on the following cognitive functions:
- Attentional control
- Response inhibition
Chronic media multitaskers do not only remember less about studied material, but show reduced working memory performance in general. In addition, these problems with working memory are predictive of less well functioning long-term memory. People that switch a lot between different streams of media, are less good at filtering out irrelevant distractions, also when they are not engaged in media multitasking behavior. There even seems to be a relationship between media multitasking and a decreased number of neurons in the brain’s executive attention network. In addition, adolescents that show a lot of media multitasking behavior, report more problems with response inhibition.
Health & well-being
Lastly, some problems concerning well-being are related to frequent media multitasking:
- Mental fatigue and stress
- Social anxiety
The constant distraction and switching between different activities can cause mental fatigue and stress. In young adults, frequent media multitasking is even linked to higher self-reported measures of depression and social anxiety.
It is important to realize that all these studies were correlational, and thus no causal relationships can be inferred. But even if frequent media multitasking is a consequence rather than a cause of aforementioned impairments, we should ask ourselves whether it is convenient to continue shaping an environment in which it is perfectly normal to show this behavior. By keeping up this societal trend, we might be sowing the seeds for a future world in which only very few have the self-discipline to remain focused and ignore distractions. I therefore suggest we embrace simplicity and challenge ourselves to more often devote our full attention to one task at a time. Of course, we do not have to get rid of our media multitasking behavior entirely, but it is important to be aware of the possible negative consequences. In my opinion, less definitely is more in this case.