A new study of media multitasking between television and computer finds that performing the two tasks leads to distractions.
Researchers found that when people were placed in a room containing a television and a computer, people on average switched their eyes back and forth between TV and computer a staggering 120 times in 27.5 minutes — or nearly once every 14 seconds.
While experts have long suspected media multitasking was distracting, Drs. S. Adam Brasel and James Gips of the Carroll School of Management used advanced cameras to track where research subjects were looking to understand the physical demands and likely disruption caused by switching between the television and computer.
“We thought it was going to be high, but the frequency of switching and amount of distraction going on was really shocking,” said Brasel.
Tellingly, individuals were not aware of their own actions. Participants in the study thought they might have looked back and forth between the two devices about 15 times per half hour. In reality, they were looking nearly 10 times as often.
And even if quick “glances” less than 1.5 seconds are removed from the equation, people were still switching over 70 times per half hour.
“What we found is that when people try to pay attention to multiple media simultaneously they are switching back and forth at an astounding rate,” said Brasel. “We’re not even aware of what we are doing when in multimedia environments.”
Study participants who thought they were only looking at the computer during TV commercials, or said they thought they were watching TV while web pages were loading, were actually behaving much differently.
The findings are meaningful as surveys show that 59 percent of Americans say they now use their computer and television at the same time. In addition, youths under 18 report this type of media multitasking is now the dominant mode in which they use both devices.
Researchers determined that when it comes to the dominant medium in this side-by-side challenge, the computer comes out the winner, drawing the attention of the study participants 68.4 percent of the time.
But neither device proved capable of holding the attention of study participants for very long, regardless of their age.
Researchers said the study raises the question about the level of comprehension among people who switch their eyes between the devices, specifically the impact on productivity or on children doing their homework.
The study will be reported in a forthcoming edition of the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.