Multitasking is a bad idea, no really, and we know it can be bad for learning. But this new study looks at both a somewhat strange and interesting correlation: kids who text and watch TV simultaneously likely to underperform at school. And yes, I wrote correlation.
Abstract of the study:
The more time teenagers spend splitting their attention between various devices such as their phones, video games or TV, the lower their test scores in math and English tend to be. More time spent multitasking between different types of media is also associated with greater impulsivity and a poorer working memory in adolescents, says Amy S. Finn of the University of Toronto. Finn was one of the leaders of a study on the topic published in Springer’s journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.
According to Finn, the term “media multitasking” describes the act of using multiple media simultaneously, such as having the television on in the background while texting on a smartphone. While it has been on the rise over the past two decades, especially among adolescents, its influence on cognition, performance at school, and personality has not been assessed before.
To do so, a Media Use Questionnaire was administered to 73 eighth grade students living in the greater Boston area. It asked them how many hours per week they spent watching television or videos, listening to music, playing video games, for reading print or electronic media, talking on the phone, using instant or text messaging, creating crafts or writing. Participants rated how often they combined these with another such activity. Aspects of their working memory, their manual dexterity and vocabulary, and their levels of grit, conscientiousness and impulsiveness were also tested. Participants were also asked whether they believed that their ability was fixed or could be improved. The researchers ascertained the 73 students’ scholastic performance by looking at their 2012 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System scores in English and math.
Overall, participants reported consuming a great deal of media, and on average watched 12 hours of television per week. They tended to multitask between mediums 25 percent of the time.
The results show how participants’ media consumption patterns outside of school are related to their performance in school tests. Teenagers who spent more time media multitasking fared significantly worse academically than others. They scored lower in certain aspects of their working memory, tended to be more impulsive and were more likely to believe that intelligence is not malleable. These results extend previous findings from adults and suggest that the relationships between cognitive abilities and media multitasking are already established by middle adolescence.
“We found a link between greater media multitasking and worse academic outcomes in adolescents. This relationship may be due to decreased executive functions and increased impulsiveness–both previously associated with both greater media multitasking and worse academic outcomes,” summarises Finn.
Improving scholastic performance isn’t just a simple matter of regulating the amount of time that teenagers spend watching television, playing video games or using their phones. “The direction of causality is difficult to establish. For example, media multitasking may be a consequence of underlying cognitive differences and not vice versa,” says Finn. Future research with larger samples may shed light on the causal link.
Abstract of the study:
Media use has been on the rise in adolescents overall, and in particular, the amount of media multitasking-multiple media consumed simultaneously, such as having a text message conversation while watching TV-has been increasing. In adults, heavy media multitasking has been linked with poorer performance on a number of laboratory measures of cognition, but no relationship has yet been established between media-multitasking behavior and real-world outcomes. Examining individual differences across a group of adolescents, we found that more frequent media multitasking in daily life was associated with poorer performance on statewide standardized achievement tests of math and English in the classroom, poorer performance on behavioral measures of executive function (working memory capacity) in the laboratory, and traits of greater impulsivity and lesser growth mindset. Greater media multitasking had a relatively circumscribed set of associations, and was not related to behavioral measures of cognitive processing speed, implicit learning, or manual dexterity, or to traits of grit and conscientiousness. Thus, individual differences in adolescent media multitasking were related to specific differences in executive function and in performance on real-world academic achievement measures: More media multitasking was associated with poorer executive function ability, worse academic achievement, and a reduced growth mindset.