Does Media Multitasking Have a Negative Effect on Your Teen?

Have you noticed your teen “media multitasking”?

Studies in adults have shown that individuals who engage in more than one type of media at once, or what is known as media multitasking, have poorer performance on a number of intellectual measures. A recent study set out to determine if the same performance patterns occur in adolescents who routinely engage in more than one type of media at once, such as watching television and sending a text message simultaneously.

Among adolescents in the U.S., the average teen currently splits their attention between more than one type of media over 25% of their time while using those devices. A recent study published in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review looked at media multitasking among adolescent children and found that similar to adults, more frequent media multitasking in daily life among teens is associated with poorer academic achievement and performance on tasks requiring working memory, as well as greater impulsivity and a reduced growth mindset, or belief that intelligence can be improved.

Among the 73 adolescents in the study, participants spent an average of 149 hours per week consuming media. Media types in the study included activities such as watching TV or videos, playing video games, listening to music or audio, talking on the phone or text messaging, reading print or electronic media, writing, and creating non-written arts and crafts. The participants were asked how often they performed or used a primary media and then how often they used a second media type while engaging with the first. The teens were then tested on a number of factors including memory, verbal comprehension, calculation, executive function, growth mindset and impulsivity. The participants’ recent results from statewide assessment tests were also obtained.

Among the participants who engaged in more media multitasking, more impulsive behaviors were reported, and those participants showed a lesser ability to effectively multitask as well as engage in tasks that involved using working memory. Additionally, less media multitasking was associated with a greater growth mindset and improved academic performance. The results reinforce the previous findings in adults.

Since the current trend among adolescents is of increased media multitasking, with children in middle adolescence consuming more media compared to younger and older peers, these results indicate it is wise to discourage teens from using more than one type of media at once. Here are some practical suggestions to reduce media multi-tasking for your children:

  1. Avoid leaving the television or other media on in the background.
  2. If your child is playing a video game or watching television, have them turn their phone/other devices off or put them in the other room.
  3. When talking on the phone focus do not engage in responding to texts, surfing the web, watching TV, etc. at the same time.
  4. Be intentional about having periods of time during the day when the focus is on a non-electronic task and devices are not being used. This includes times spent eating meals, doing homework, reading for pleasure, completing self-care tasks, etc.

Reducing media multitasking is a simple and effective way to promote better focus and attention, reduce impulsivity, improve memory, and support academic performance. All children can benefit from addressing this issue, especially those struggling in these areas. Consistently implement boundaries for multitasking with media and electronic devices, and see what improvements you notice in your child (and maybe even yourself)!

For more on electronics use and child development, check out this article by Dr. Beurkens: Read more….

What are your thoughts on media multitasking? Have you noticed problems resulting from this for your children, students, or yourself? Leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!

Cain, M.S., Leonard, J.A., Gabrieli, J.D.E., and Finn, A.S. (2016). Media multitasking in adolescence. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review. doi: 10.3758/s13423-016-1036-3

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