Media Multitasking: Turn it off and pay attention

Media Multitasking: Turn it off and pay attention

Jun 21, 2011

By: Heather Arntson, Engagement Research Strategist

Focus on One Thing:
 How many media devices running simultaneously can one person handle? According to studies from both Stanford University and Boston College, one is the limit. Several media devices can surround us physically, but cognitively, we can only focus on one media outlet at a time. Even worse, repeatedly using several media devices at one time hinders our ability to filter out irrelevant information, to organize information in our memories, and it lengthens the time needed to switch between tasks1. Continual Multitasking Has Negative Effects Both Short and Long Term: Frequent media multitasking lessens our ability to multitask. However, it doesn’t all have a negative effect. For instance, listening to a podcast while doing dishes is an efficient use of time, but reading the newspaper while listening to the radio is not. It has been noted by the British Institute of Psychiatry that “checking your email while performing another creative task decreases your IQ at the moment 10 points. That is the equivalent of not sleeping for 36 hours2.” Media Multitasking is Driven by a Need to Be Constantly Connected: If media multitasking decreases our cognitive ability, why do we continue to do it? According to Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, it is a desire for perpetual connectivity. We do not shut off media devices for fear that we may miss something, ultimately causing a state of “continuous partial attention3.” There is a physical presence, but it lacks full, undivided attention, and social media and mobile phones greatly add to both of these issues. If you are paying attention to foursquare, you cannot also pay attention to other people. Our brains are not wired to multitask. Perhaps someday they will get rewired to handle multimedia use, but until that happens we need to focus on one medium at a time. Is frequent media multitasking really a problem? Yes it is. According to Nielsen’s Three Screen Report, nearly 60 percent of TV viewers use the Internet at the same time they watch TV4. They aren’t just going online during commercials, either. In a study conducted by Boston College, participants switched back and forth between TV and the Internet 120 times in 27.5 minutes, or every 14 seconds. Throughout the study, the computer was the dominant medium capturing the attention of participants nearly 70 percent of the time. Keep Advertising Simple and Memorable:
What does all this mean for advertisers? Messages need to be kept simple and memorable for TV audiences. The majority of TV viewers are distracted with media multitasking, hindering their ability to pay attention and retain new information. Longer and more informative messages are better suited for venues when consumers can digest the information at their own pace.


1Stanford Report, Media Multitaskers Pay Mental Price, August 2009

2Dr. Glenn Wilson, The “Infomania” Study, The British Institute of Psychiatry, 2005

3Pew Internet & This American Life

4Nielsen Three Screen Report, Spring 2009