Many of us do it and think it doesn’t hurt anything — we multitask between watching television and working on the computer, whether it’s surfing the web, posting an update to Facebook or Twitter, or uploading our latest photos to Flickr. We multitask on the computer, with the TV on in the background, and believe we are “watching” TV.
But are we really? How much multitasking are we really doing, and how much do we think we’re doing? How often are we switching between tasks over the course of 30 minutes? Take a guess right now. Do you switch your attention 20 times while watching a TV show? 40 times?
Researchers found the average amount of attention switching done in their study was 120 times in one 27.5 minute period. That averages out to more than 4 times a minute. That’s 4 times a minute your brain is trying to switch gears and make sense out of a new set of visual (and auditory) stimuli.
What else did the researchers find out?
Researchers Brasel & Gips (2011) conducted their multi-tasking study on 42 students from a large East Coast university (since both researchers are affiliated with Boston College, let’s just say “Boston College”). These students were a bit older in average age than your usual college study, with a mean age of nearly 34 years old. This is good, because it means these multitasking data may actually be relevant to older adults too. (However, given the small sample size and limited nature of the population studied, naturally these results should be taken with a grain of salt until replicated by other researchers.)
Subjects were told to use the computer and television (a nice flat screen mounted 5 feet behind the computer and within easy view) in a laboratory however they’d like; both were already turned on and ready to go when the participants came in. They were also informed they were being recorded, and participants completed pre- and post-survey questionnaires.
That data, along with the video, was analyzed. The video was analyzed for where and how long the participant was looking — at the computer, at the TV, or somewhere else.
What did they find?
First, of no surprise to anyone who’s done this, we tend to spend more time looking at the computer than the TV. When the two are competing for our attention, we spend longer periods with computer:
Compared to television, computer attention also had a larger portion of extended gazes: 7.4 percent of gazes to the computer lasted longer than 60 seconds, whereas only 2.9 percent of television gazes broke the 1-minute barrier.
The subjects also significantly underestimated how much switching between the two media they did. While they averaged 120 switches in the 27.5 minute study period, most people thought they only switched attention about 17 times — a significant difference. People don’t think they’re as distracted as they actually are when they are multi-tasking, perhaps underestimating — significantly — the potential impact their behavior has on their attentional abilities devoted to the computer.
Since the researchers went out of their way to recruit both younger and older adults in this study, they could also compare whether younger adults differed significantly from their older counterparts. They did this by recruiting both students (who tended to be younger), as well as staff (who tended to be older) from the college campus:
Students reported enjoying multitasking in general more than staff, and also reported that they felt more effective at multitasking in general. […]
Survey results indicated that students estimate 46.28 percent of their media is consumed simultaneously with a second media source, whereas staff estimate only 22.73 percent of their media is simultaneously consumed.
Students switched significantly more often than staff between the media, and had shorter gazes overall than staff, with a median gaze duration of 2.3 seconds versus 3.1 seconds for staff.
This study hints at the generational shift that is occurring and that researchers are starting to document in studies such as this. Younger adults are used to consuming media simultaneously, from multiple sources, and enjoy doing so. Older adults (that is to say, middle-aged adults and older) do less of this, and tend to enjoy it less. At least according to this single study.
Last, the researchers conclude:
The brevity of gaze durations on both computer and television content in this multitasking environment suggests a fracturing of attention with rapid attentional shifts and reorientation; both media seem to have limited ability to “hook” a participant into extended runs of attention. Television attention is especially composed of very quick gazes overall, supporting the contention that much of television viewing is automatic and involves little cognitive effort or attention. […]
[Individuals] tend to overestimate their multitasking ability and […] heavy multitaskers are more prone to distraction. Participants have little ability to recall their moment-to-moment visual attention in multimedia environments, and indeed much of their visual attention is confined to short monitoring and orienting looks involving little conscious involvement or deep processing.
While it appears we do a lot of multitasking between two or more types of media, it’s not clear we’re always giving ourselves the amount of time it takes to keep our gaze — and attention — focused on a task to do it well.
This study adds to our understanding of multi-tasking by showing how inaccurate we are in predicting how much multi-tasking we’re actually doing, and how little time we spend focused on either media when in a room with two different media sources.
S. Adam Brasel, James Gips. (2011). Media Multitasking Behavior: Concurrent Television and Computer Usage. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. doi:10.1089/cyber.2010.0350.