The Problem With Media Multitasking While Reading

Living rooms, dens, kitchens, even bedrooms: Investigators followed students into the spaces where homework gets done. Pens poised over their “study observation forms,” the observers watched intently as the students—in middle school, high school, and college, 263 in all—opened their books and turned on their computers.

For a quarter of an hour, the investigators from the lab of Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University-Dominguez Hills, marked down once a minute what the students were doing as they studied. A checklist on the form included: reading a book, writing on paper, typing on the computer—and also using email, looking at Facebook, engaging in instant messaging, texting, talking on the phone, watching television, listening to music, surfing the web. Sitting unobtrusively at the back of the room, the observers counted the number of windows open on the students’ screens and noted whether the students were wearing ear-buds.

Although the students had been told at the outset that they should “study something important, including homework, an upcoming examination or project, or reading a book for a course,” it wasn’t long before their attention drifted: Students’ “on-task behavior” started declining around the two-minute mark as they began responding to arriving texts or checking their Facebook feeds. By the time the 15 minutes were up, they had spent only about 65 percent of the observation period actually doing their schoolwork.

“We were amazed at how frequently they multitasked, even though they knew someone was watching,” Rosen says. “It really seems that they could not go for 15 minutes without engaging their devices,” adding, “It was kind of scary, actually.”

Concern about young people’s use of technology is nothing new, of course. But Rosen’s study, published in the May issue of Computers in Human Behavior, is part of a growing body of research focused on a very particular use of technology: media multitasking while learning. Attending to multiple streams of information and entertainment while studying, doing homework, or even sitting in class has become common behavior among young people—so common that many of them rarely write a paper or complete a problem set any other way.

But evidence from psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience suggests that when students multitask while doing schoolwork, their learning is far spottier and shallower than if the work had their full attention. They understand and remember less, and they have greater difficulty transferring their learning to new contexts. So detrimental is this practice that some researchers are proposing that a new prerequisite for academic and even professional success—the new marshmallow test of self-discipline—is the ability to resist a blinking inbox or a buzzing phone.

The media multitasking habit starts early. In “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds,” a survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and published in 2010, almost a third of those surveyed said that when they were doing homework, “most of the time” they were also watching TV, texting, listening to music, or using some other medium. The lead author of the study was Victoria Rideout, then a vice president at Kaiser and now an independent research and policy consultant. Although the study looked at all aspects of kids’ media use, Rideout told me she was particularly troubled by its findings regarding media multitasking while doing schoolwork.

“This is a concern we should have distinct from worrying about how much kids are online or how much kids are media multitasking overall. It’s multitasking while learning that has the biggest potential downside,” she says. “I don’t care if a kid wants to tweet while she’s watching American Idol, or have music on while he plays a video game. But when students are doing serious work with their minds, they have to have focus.”

For older students, the media multitasking habit extends into the classroom. While most middle and high school students don’t have the opportunity to text, email, and surf the Internet during class, studies show the practice is nearly universal among students in college and professional school. One large survey found that 80 percent of college students admit to texting during class; 15 percent say they send 11 or more texts in a single class period.

During the first meeting of his courses, Rosen makes a practice of calling on a student who is busy with his phone. “I ask him, ‘What was on the slide I just showed to the class?’ The student always pulls a blank,” Rosen reports. “Young people have a wildly inflated idea of how many things they can attend to at once, and this demonstration helps drive the point home: If you’re paying attention to your phone, you’re not paying attention to what’s going on in class.” Other professors have taken a more surreptitious approach, installing electronic spyware or planting human observers to record whether students are taking notes on their laptops or using them for other, unauthorized purposes.

Such steps may seem excessive, even paranoid: After all, isn’t technology increasingly becoming an intentional part of classroom activities and homework assignments? Educators are using social media sites like Facebook and Twitter as well as social sites created just for schools, such as Edmodo, to communicate with students, take class polls, assign homework, and have students collaborate on projects. But researchers are concerned about the use of laptops, tablets, cellphones, and other technology for purposes quite apart from schoolwork. Now that these devices have been admitted into classrooms and study spaces, it has proven difficult to police the line between their approved and illicit uses by students.

In the study involving spyware, for example, two professors of business administration at the University of Vermont found that “students engage in substantial multitasking behavior with their laptops and have non-course-related software applications open and active about 42 percent of the time.” The professors, James Kraushaar and David Novak, obtained students’ permission before installing the monitoring software on their computers—so, as in Rosen’s study, the students were engaging in flagrant multitasking even though they knew their actions were being recorded.

Another study, carried out at St. John’s University in New York, used human observers stationed at the back of the classroom to record the technological activities of law students. The spies reported that 58 percent of second- and third-year law students who had laptops in class were using them for “non-class purposes” more than half the time. (First-year students were far more likely to use their computers for taking notes, although an observer did note one first-year student texting just 17 minutes into her very first class—the beginning of her law school career.)

Texting, emailing, and posting on Facebook and other social media sites are by far the most common digital activities students undertake while learning, according to Rosen. That’s a problem, because these operations are actually quite mentally complex, and they draw on the same mental resources—using language, parsing meaning—demanded by schoolwork.

David Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan who’s studied the effects of divided attention on learning, takes a firm line on the brain’s ability to multitask: “Under most conditions, the brain simply cannot do two complex tasks at the same time. It can happen only when the two tasks are both very simple and when they don’t compete with each other for the same mental resources. An example would be folding laundry and listening to the weather report on the radio. That’s fine. But listening to a lecture while texting, or doing homework and being on Facebook—each of these tasks is very demanding, and each of them uses the same area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.”

Young people think they can perform two challenging tasks at once, Meyer acknowledges, but “they are deluded,” he declares. It’s difficult for anyone to properly evaluate how well his or her own mental processes are operating, he points out, because most of these processes are unconscious. And, Meyer adds, “there’s nothing magical about the brains of so-called ‘digital natives’ that keeps them from suffering the inefficiencies of multitasking. They may like to do it, they may even be addicted to it, but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s far better to focus on one task from start to finish.”

Researchers have documented a cascade of negative outcomes that occurs when students multitask while doing schoolwork. First, the assignment takes longer to complete, because of the time spent on distracting activities and because, upon returning to the assignment, the student has to refamiliarize himself with the material.

Second, the mental fatigue caused by repeatedly dropping and picking up a mental thread leads to more mistakes. The cognitive cost of such task-switching is especially high when students alternate between tasks that call for different sets of expressive “rules”—the formal, precise language required for an English essay, for example, and the casual, friendly tone of an email to a friend.

Third, students’ subsequent memory of what they’re working on will be impaired if their attention is divided. Although we often assume that our memories fail at the moment we can’t recall a fact or concept, the failure may actually have occurred earlier, at the time we originally saved, or encoded, the memory. The moment of encoding is what matters most for retention, and dozens of laboratory studies have demonstrated that when our attention is divided during encoding, we remember that piece of information less well—or not at all. As the unlucky student spotlighted by Rosen can attest, we can’t remember something that never really entered our consciousness in the first place. And a study last month showed that students who multitask on laptops in class distract not just themselves but also their peers who see what they’re doing.

Fourth, some research has suggested that when we’re distracted, our brains actually process and store information in different, less useful ways. In a 2006 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Russell Poldrack of the University of Texas–Austin and two colleagues asked participants to engage in a learning activity on a computer while also carrying out a second task, counting musical tones that sounded while they worked. Study subjects who did both tasks at once appeared to learn just as well as subjects who did the first task by itself. But upon further probing, the former group proved much less adept at extending and extrapolating their new knowledge to novel contexts—a key capacity that psychologists call transfer.

Brain scans taken during Poldrack’s experiment revealed that different regions of the brain were active under the two conditions, indicating that the brain engages in a different form of memory when forced to pay attention to two streams of information at once. The results suggest, the scientists wrote, that “even if distraction does not decrease the overall level of learning, it can result in the acquisition of knowledge that can be applied less flexibly in new situations.”

Finally, researchers are beginning to demonstrate that media multitasking while learning is negatively associated with students’ grades. In Rosen’s study, students who used Facebook during the 15-minute observation period had lower grade-point averages than those who didn’t go on the site. And two recent studies by Reynol Junco, a faculty associate at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, found that texting and using Facebook—in class and while doing homework—were negatively correlated with college students’ GPAs. “Engaging in Facebook use or texting while trying to complete schoolwork may tax students’ capacity for cognitive processing and preclude deeper learning,” write Junco and a co-author. (Of course, it’s also plausible that the texting and Facebooking students are those with less willpower or motivation, and thus likely to have lower GPAs even aside from their use of technology.)

Meyer, of the University of Michigan, worries that the problem goes beyond poor grades. “There’s a definite possibility that we are raising a generation that is learning more shallowly than young people in the past,” he says. “The depth of their processing of information is considerably less, because of all the distractions available to them as they learn.”

Given that these distractions aren’t going away, academic and even professional achievement may depend on the ability to ignore digital temptations while learning—a feat akin to the famous marshmallow test. In a series of experiments conducted more than 40 years ago, psychologist Walter Mischel tempted young children with a marshmallow, telling them they could have two of the treats if they put off eating one right away. Follow-up studies performed years later found that the kids who were better able to delay gratification not only achieved higher grades and test scores but were also more likely to succeed in school and their careers.

Two years ago, Rosen and his colleagues conducted an information-age version of the marshmallow test. College students who participated in the study were asked to watch a 30-minute videotaped lecture, during which some were sent eight text messages while others were sent four or zero text messages. Those who were interrupted more often scored worse on a test of the lecture’s content; more interestingly, those who responded to the experimenters’ texts right away scored significantly worse than those participants who waited to reply until the lecture was over.

This ability to resist the lure of technology can be consciously cultivated, Rosen maintains. He advises students to take “tech breaks” to satisfy their cravings for electronic communication: After they’ve labored on their schoolwork uninterrupted for 15 minutes, they can allow themselves two minutes to text, check websites, and post to their hearts’ content. Then the devices get turned off for another 15 minutes of academics.

Over time, Rosen says, students are able extend their working time to 20, 30, even 45 minutes, as long as they know that an opportunity to get online awaits. “Young people’s technology use is really about quelling anxiety,” he contends. “They don’t want to miss out. They don’t want to be the last person to hear some news, or the ninth person to ‘like’ someone’s post.” Device-checking is a compulsive behavior that must be managed, he says, if young people are to learn and perform at their best.

Rideout, director of the Kaiser study on kids and media use, sees an upside for parents in the new focus on multitasking while learning. “The good thing about this phenomenon is that it’s a relatively discrete behavior that parents actually can do something about,” she says. “It would be hard to enforce a total ban on media multitasking, but parents can draw a line when it comes to homework and studying—telling their kids, ‘This is a time when you will concentrate on just one thing.’ ”

Parents shouldn’t feel like ogres when they do so, she adds. “It’s important to remember that while a lot of kids do media multitask while doing homework, a lot of them don’t. One out of five kids in our study said they ‘never’ engage in other media while doing homework, and another one in five said they do so only ‘a little bit.’ This is not some universal norm that students and parents can’t buck. This is not an unreasonable thing to ask of your kid.”

So here’s the takeaway for parents of Generation M: Stop fretting about how much they’re on Facebook. Don’t harass them about how much they play video games. The digital native boosters are right that this is the social and emotional world in which young people live. Just make sure when they’re doing schoolwork, the cellphones are silent, the video screens are dark, and that every last window is closed but one.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University, and MindShift, a news website focusing on innovations in education and new trends in teaching and learning.

27 Responses to “The Problem With Media Multitasking While Reading”

  1. Mini says:

    Thanks for scientifically & passionately highlighting the impact of media multi-tasking. Its effects arent just being felt in schools & universities but also at other intellectual gatherings including at the workplace…device distraction has become commonplace even in the midst of intense deliberations…Where does one draw the line though when the nature & extent of engagement are constantly evolving?

    • Pamela says:

      I totally agree with the author’s comments in regards to parents insisting that parents stop their children from using any form of social media while doing homework or studying. Media multi-tasking in the classroom and at home (while doing homework) is a problem and it is getting worse everyday. It will take the village to help get this issue under controll.

  2. Uzma says:

    I’m so glad I passed school before social media conquered our lives, or else this would have been my story too. But what concerns me is the fact that they knew someone is monitoring them yet they couldn’t resist the blinking inbox or a buzzing phone?

  3. Jon says:

    I am not surprised. As a secondary school teacher, I see evidence of this practise all the time! Even in class, as mentioned, the students will have phones out under desks.

    But what is it that makes these things so attractive? How can we incorporate that level if attraction into our lessons and our learning environments? It seems that this situation offers not only opportunity for concern, but also opportunity to observe incredibly addictive mediums of ‘information transfer’ at work. I’d love to see some suggestions of how these could be incorporated effectively into lessons and become tools of learning.

    The other big evil we have to try and counter is console gaming – why oh why is there a new Call of Duty map pack released just AFTER the Easter holidays?!

  4. Matt says:

    Indeed, it is said that “one who chases two rabbits catches neither.” I’m 54 and I too have been affected by the FB, Twitter, cellphone-texting craze. I simply decided to stop playing this game. I feel much better.

  5. Harlan says:

    This article was so incredibly interesting, after just a few paragraphs I had to stop reading to share it on Facebook and forward it to a few friends.
    ______________________
    (Just kidding.) I found it a fascinating depiction of the attention drain represented by the constant potential for electronic media contact. I will encourage the students at our high school to read it and think about how this is reflected in each of our lives, and what it means for their futures.

  6. Therese Craine Bertsch says:

    This is the first article I have read on this topic that attempted to think about the ethics of technology and the reason for so doing. I feel somewhat powerless monitoring college students who text during class for many reasons. Thinking about taking short breaks for the students to check their devices and reading this article as a project in the first class is one way to begin to address this issue. It is impossible to monitor each student during class for many reasons. Creating a contract about HOW they can check their devices and a class culture who clearly understands WHY we do this and consequences if they don’t follow their contract is a concrete way of responding. The article has stimulated my thinking about creating an ethic of cultural technology in various settings is an important goal. For example, i know a young grandmother who takes her teen grandchildren out to dinner twice a month. Before they get in her car the have to put their I-phones in the basket in the car trunk. She worked to create a social culture with them by explaining this is their time together to build their mutual support and relationships and this action is central to their being able to be together. Thank you for an excellent and illuminating article.

  7. Mark Brady says:

    In *The Social Neuroscience of Education*, Cozolino argues that we’re attempting to operate in an information-overloaded world with a brain optimally designed for tribal culture. Combine that with neuroscientist, Susan Greenfield’s assessment that data screens are turning us into a planet of introverts – where we have diminishing capacity to engage with others face to face with a significant degree of emotional intelligence, and it becomes a challenge to spin any of this as ultimately socially beneficial. The Whatever Culture ends up as 20 and 30-year-olds with the diminished emotion-processing capacity of elementary school children.

  8. Today we live in what I like to call the Age of Distraction or the Era of Being Present without Really Being Here. This is fairly true across generations but more pronounced in younger generations, as they are the most tech-savvy generation in world history (until the next one).

    Multitasking is the norm today. Doing one thing at a time–whether riding in the car, watching TV, or doing homework–seems “boring” to many kids (and not a few adults as well). Last summer I took my son and his friend hiking in New Hampshire to see some of the region’s beautiful waterfalls. The friend was bored the whole time and even expressed fear and anxiety about an overnight trip with minimal technology options.

    Even for adults, I believe that many of us have the ILLUSION that we can multitask in situations where we really can’t. There are many corporate meetings and presentations where people are on their phones much of the time or clearly “not really there.” We can rationalize this in various ways, but the research you cite proves the point that we can’t really learn unless we’re really there.

    This trend of multitasking has other effects beyond the ones you mention with learning. Although I would argue that face-to-face communication remains the gold standard for communication, the ubiguity of other ways to communicate (e.g., email, texting) has made many people more reluctant to speak directly to others. As we get more accustomed to texting and emailing between or during other situations (have you noticed how many times you now see young couples both texting or looking at their phones while on a date?!), I think we get increasingly less comfortable with in-the-moment, single-focus, face-to-face interaction… which is sad, as this has the highest payoff.

  9. Ed Woodd says:

    Annie,

    I enjoyed your blog. Perhaps we really needed is to figure out how to approach education and learning with new eyes rather than devise new ways to limit social media’s impact on our youth. Love it or hate it, the technology is here to stay and will be even more pervasive in the years to come.

    Alfie Kohn’s book “The Homework Myth” is a relevant read as is Tom Vander Ark’s “Getting Smart.” For the sake of our children, we need to retool our broken education system and develop a new paradigm. The stakes are frighteningly high!

  10. Hope says:

    Thanks for this post! I noticed my 11 & 13 year old’s starting to do homework with their iPods alongside them and had to talk to them about how multitasking is actually continually interrupting yourself from one activity for another. I told them to put the pods aside, and to use them for 5-10 minute breaks from studying in longer chunks.

    I, too, feel the pull of social media when I ought to be and want to be working on my own projects. I try to follow my advice to my children.

    Now I have some “ammunition” for them – reasons why.

  11. Excellent and thought-provoking article. Two key things came to mind while reading it:

    [1] As a few of the other commenters have mentioned, this issue does not just apply to young people. As anyone who’s sat in any business meeting or corporate training can attest, adults are guilty of this as well. The “addiction to distraction” has reached epidemic proportions, and the lack of focus, device compulsion, and social rudeness results in a powerful combination that negatively impacts both learning and relationships. So all age groups and demographics are guilty of this behavior.

    [2] Secondly, I do have to say that if you are a teacher, professor, presenter, or meeting-leader who is struggling to capture and hold people’s attention, perhaps it’s not entirely the fault of the audience and we must accept some of the responsibility. It is our job to engage, rather than to “police” people…and seek to lure their attention away from their devices by means of interesting content delivered with creativity and passion. We need to focus more on the WSIC (Why Should I Care) and the WIFM (What’s In it For Me) from the point of view of the audience or learner — and perhaps then they will put their gadgets down…(even if only for 20 minutes :)

  12. Bill Kuhl says:

    I just happened to be listening to a podcast today on my noon walk from the “Stuff to Blow Your Mind” podcast entitled, “Multitasking Maniacs and the One Track Mind” I seem to be able to multitask walking and listening fairly well.

    There was one study where a small number of people were able to do a multitask exercise fairly well while the vast majority of people could not.

  13. Therese Craine Bertsch says:

    Could be we are rather primitive in our capacity to multitask but this will improve with use. The test results may identify our present capacity to successfully multitask. Who knows what the future will bring?

  14. Mark Clemons says:

    I believe as Ed talks about that much of what this blog discusses has to do with our antiquated education system. As a teacher I have switched from teaching in the classroom to teaching on line. Lectures should be a thing of the past. Homework that is not interactive in some way should not be given. Our educational system, particularly at the college/university level is still using methods of ancient Greece. We should be figuring new ways of approaching teaching/learning that incorporate our new way of living with technology. With the whole of information literally at our fingertips we should no longer be teaching facts but rather how to use and apply information. If our learning processes were as attractive and interesting as the interactive media perhaps there would be less problems with multitasking. We need new ways of looking at education and teaching/learning.

  15. Nikhil Gupta says:

    Concur with everything.
    But the (sad) truth is despite concurring and reading about it, I still interrupted reading this article with some facebook.
    Aargh, you devilish technology.

  16. Mike Thayer says:

    @Bill – Wondering if the point is that when we talk about multitasking we are talking about trying to perform more than one cognitively complex task at a time; walking while listening to a podcast does not strike me as multitasking in the sense Annie is referring to.

    To everyone else: I’ve read, and enjoyed, Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows”, which makes me wonder how this research plays into the points he brought up. At a cursory level, it looks to me like his premise that the Internet, with its attendant distractions, is leading us to think more shallowly is in great agreement with the research cited in this post.

    Annie, thanks for writing this – I’m keeping this to share with my students. I wonder what they’ll think!

  17. Jon W Fleming says:

    This article complements others I’ve read regarding the myth of multitasking. Unfortunately students often aren’t aware that they aren’t learning until they perform poorly on an assessment. I agree that trying to ban students from checking or sending communications from various social media platforms for long periods of time is unrealistic and that helping them learn to delay the gratification they associate with such activities will enhance their learning and transfer to helping them be successful in other endeavors.

  18. Mark West says:

    Food for thought. Thank you.

  19. David Nelson says:

    Hi Annie, great article and meaningful research. I am a student and I can relate to this as well. Unfortunately, “checking emails” like 10 times in 3 hours is very common, as well as the addictive nature of social media. It has become an addiction of some sort. Perhaps, a therapy or system has to be implemented to help students delay their gratification and detach themselves from these media when doing other meaningful work. Thanks for sharing!

  20. Joe says:

    What this needs is to be summed up in an infographic and shared with students so they finally realize that a period of FOCUS on one thing is more beneficial than doing many things at once.

    Nice article Annie. Good work.

  21. Bill Kuhl says:

    @Mike, it was true that I was walking and listening to a podcast. I was trying to be a little funny with that one.

    Another point from the podcast was that too much multitasking might be lowering your IQ.

  22. Tom Layton says:

    One has to consider the evolutionary implications of this phenomena. You might recall that St. Augustine, in his Confessions, describes the unbelievable behavior of reading silently – that is the ability to read without speaking the words aloud. http://www.stanford.edu/class/history34q/readings/Manguel/Silent_Readers.html

    I am confident that I, at age 66, cannot multitask without losing understanding. However, I can imagine that there are those who can read silently, listen to music, talk to their friends and do their homework all at the same time. In 50 or a 100 years this may even become the norm.

    Perhaps the human brain is continuing to evolve.

  23. Scott says:

    One of the most cognitively demanding tasks we all undertake regularly is driving. I know it often doesn’t seem that way during the routine of our daily commute, especially if the traffic is not moving, but it only takes one mistake by us, another driver, cyclist or pedestrian and to remind us that our attention needs to be on the road. A number of stuides have shown that a conversation, even with someone in the vehicle, but especially with some who is not in the vehicle (i.e. phone) is equivalent to drinking and driving. If kids are convinced that they can study and tweet at the same time, how do we convince them that they can’t drive while on the phone? How do we convince the adults?

  24. Rodger says:

    Are there similar studies concerning the victims of those who speak REALLY LOUDLY outside your cubicle as you try to concentrate?

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