David Frederick's | iAIR BLOG

Consulting, Innovation, Strategy, Vision, Education, & Ideation

Media multitasking is really multidistracting

It’s an interesting topic. The self delusional idea of multitasking. There really is no such thing. What is commonly misunderstood as multitasking is really something called switching – the ability of the brain to rapidly switch from one task to another. This can happen in milliseconds and can actually seem and feel like “multitasking” but unless you have an Intel processor wired to your brain, it aint happening.

Don’t get me wrong, many people can switch so fast that is truly seems like they are multitasking, but from a physiological and cognitive/processing stand point they are not.

Further complicating the cognitive challenges of switching/multitasking is the interesting introduction of multi-media i.e. trying to type a paper and listen to music or type a report and watch TV at the same time. This brings me to an interesting article from Boston College on media multiasking. As such, I thought I would share it with you.


Media multitasking is really multidistracting

Multitaskers who think they can successfully divide their attention between the program on their television set and the information on their computer screen have proven to be driven to distraction by the two devices, according to a new study of media multitasking by Boston College researchers.

Placed in a room containing a television and a computer and given a half hour to use either device, subjects in the study on average switched their eyes back and forth between TV and computer a 120 times in 27.5 minutes, nearly once every 14 seconds.

The researchers used advanced cameras to track where research subjects were looking to understand the physical demands and likely disruption caused by switching between the television and computer.

The researchers said that the subjects were not even aware of their own actions. On average, participants in the study thought they might have looked back and forth between the two devices about 15 times per half hour. In reality, they were looking almost 10 times as often. Even if quick “glances” (less than 1.5 seconds) were removed from the equation, the subjects were still switching over 70 times per half hour.

Brasel and Gips, Egan Professor of information systems and computer science, determined that when it comes to the dominant medium in this side-by-side challenge, the computer comes out the winner, drawing the attention of the study participants 68.4 percent of the time. But neither device proved capable of holding the attention of study participants for very long, regardless of their age. The median length of gaze lasted less than two seconds for television and less than six seconds for the computer, the researchers found.

Understanding the physical behavior of multi-media multitaskers raises questions about the level of comprehension among people who switch their eyes between the devices, specifically the impact on productivity or on children doing their homework. And for companies that rely on TV or the Internet to communicate with consumers, the findings raise questions about the effectiveness of the two channels as means to garner the attention of potential customers.

Note that the study doesn’t address your cell phone, tablet, and other devices.

Ref: S. Adam Brasel, James Gips, Media Multitasking Behavior: Concurrent Television and Computer Usage, Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 2011; : 110307160334058 DOI: 10.1089/cyber.2010.0350


Written by David Frederick

May 3, 2011 at 10:46 AM

3 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Interesting study.

    Does it take into account that, when you are working one close vision activity, your eyes will flick to the screen and away from it repeatedly?

    It’s a way that your eyes have to relieve themselves from the effort of close visual work.

    I’d also say that it is possible to multitask (as opposed to switching) when one of the activities is at the “automatic” level of function. Like knitting and talking to someone.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: