A new study just published suggests that the more expertise one has with instant messaging (IMing), the worse one’s test scores. And, not surprising and consistent with prior research, the new study (Fox, 2008) found that IMing increases the time it takes to complete a task.
The study looked at 69 undergraduates who were randomly assigned to one of four different groups: reading a simple text passage and answering some questions about it, with one group doing it while not IMing, and another while actively IMing; reading a difficult text passage and answering some questions about it, with one group doing it while not IMing, and another while actively IMing. The researchers then examined the differences in response times and their reading comprehension scores based upon the accuracy of their responses to the questions.
The researchers found that those who instant messaged did worse on total reading comprehension scores (but did okay when the questions were only multiple choice), and took significantly longer to complete the difficult text passage than the easier text passage.
The study also found that the more time participants reported spending on IM in their everyday lives, the significantly lower their comprehension scores and their Grade Point Average (GPA).
The upshot? People who IM more than others may not do as well on a test of a person’s knowledge, especially if that test has fill-in-the-blank or essay questions (as opposed to multiple choice). You’ll also likely take longer to complete the test, not surprisingly, if you’re IMing at the same time. And students who IM more have lower GPAs than those who IM less.
Since I don’t know of too many students who would IM during an actual test, one could generalize these results to suggest that trying to read some text — an article or research paper online or offline, for instance — one is less likely to actually do as well a job comprehending what one is reading if one is also IMing at the same time. The study also suggests that too much IMing can have a detrimental effect on one’s grades. If IMing is seen for what it is — a form of socializing via technology — then this result is consistent with our expectations. College life is a balance between socializing, studying, and other extracurricular activities and if you tip that balance to any one activity, academic life usually suffers.
The study was only done on college students, however, so the results should be taken with a grain of salt. And the participants in the study were all pretty highly experienced and frequent users of IM, with an average of over 5 years of experience IMing and nearly 2 hours a day spent IMing. (However, since IMing is rarely the sole activity done while online, it’s unlikely students spent the entire 2 hours — 1.76 to be exact — just instant messaging one another.)
What the study suggests, broadly, is that IMing may interfere with our ability to do as good and timely a job with comprehending something than if we didn’t. Which perhaps is another reason to shut IM and texting down when you really need to concentrate on learning something new.
Fox, A.B., Rosen, J., & Crawford, M. (2008). Distractions, distractions: Does instant messaging affect college students’ performance on a concurrent reading comprehension task? CyberPsychology & Behavior, Nov. 2008, ahead of print.