Media Multitasking Gets a Bad Rap

You’re writing up a piece about the Presidential election.

Your friend walks in and starts talking to you about Pirates of the Caribbean, his favorite movie. You successfully split your attention between your friend and your writing for a bit, until you notice that you’ve written something about Johnny Depp and a kraken in the middle of your election piece for no good reason.

If this sounds like your life, you might understand some of the issues with multitasking.

Multitasking has recently gotten a lot of negative press, mostly along the lines of “you might think that multitasking is good for you, but it’s not”. The truth is just not that simple, though. Media multitasking has gotten a bad rap, and I’m not afraid to say it.

To be fair, media multitasking can sometimes be as bad as its reputation. For example, multitasking on your laptop while listening to lectures can make you learn less from the lecture. If you multitask while reading something, it will take you longer to get through the reading.

Researchers ran a study, reviewed here, which similarly hypothesized that multitasking while reading (like multitasking during a lecture) would affect how much you actually learned from the reading.

Surprisingly, they found similar levels of retention from people who just did the reading and people who multitasked while reading, indicating no negative effect of media multitasking on reading retention. This study was notably done on college students, and researchers suggested these findings might be the case because college students nowadays have grown up with media multitasking.

One possible explanation for the varying results found from multitasking during a lecture and multitasking during a reading is that you can’t revisit anything from a lecture, but you can revisit parts of a reading. In other words, multitasking during a lecture makes you miss information, but multitasking while reading just diverts your attention from that information without making you miss it, since you can easily revisit it.

Now, I must point out that this field of study is obviously fairly new, and we could soon find out that media multitasking has all sorts of negative effects on learning and retention. As of now, though, these effects have been shown when multitasking while listening to someone, but not while reading.

Next time you’re watching a video, pay full attention and try not to multitask. Next time you’re doing some reading, though, multitasking might not be the worst thing, if you don’t care how long it takes you to get through the article/chapter.

For example, if you’re trying to read something but you’re also stressing about whether or not that email you just got is the one you’ve been waiting for, go ahead and check that email. The reading will be waiting for you when you get back.

You should still avoid multitasking whenever possible (especially if you have a limited amount of time to do something), because concentrating on a single thing at a time can make it easier to keep your head clear.

Media multitasking is not as bad as you think it is, though, and a little bit of multitasking here and there (especially while reading, rather than while listening to someone) probably won’t hurt you as much as you’ve been led to believe.