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Multitasking Makes Teens Feel Better — and Worse

Multitasking makes adolescents feel both more positively and more negatively about the main task they’re trying to accomplish, according to a new study.

However, the study — which examined young people’s actual multitasking behaviors over two weeks — found that only the positive emotions affected whether young people choose to combine tasks later, according to researchers at Ohio State University.

The study found that when adolescents combined something they had to do, such as homework, with media use, such as texting with friends, they said the homework was more rewarding, stimulating or pleasant.

But they also reported feeling more negative emotions about the homework, such as finding it more difficult or tiring, researchers reported.

It’s not particularly surprising that media multitasking would create both positive and negative emotions, said Dr. Zheng Wang, co-author of the study and a professor of communication at The Ohio State University.

“People experience mixed feelings about a lot of things in life,” she said. “Texting with friends while doing homework may make the homework seem more rewarding, but it may also increase a young person’s stress about getting the work done.”

The study found that the more positive emotions the participants felt during multitasking, the less likely they were to multitask during subsequent activities. But negative emotions did not have any effect on later actions, according to the researchers.

The study included 71 adolescents aged 11 to 17 living in the Midwest. All participants reported their activities, both media-related and non-media related, three times a day for 14 days on a tablet.

Each time, they listed a main activity they were doing, such as homework or chores, and whether they were doing any media multitasking, such as texting or playing video games, at the same time.

For each main activity, they rated to what extent they felt seven emotional responses — three positive and four negative.

The study’s findings show that the teens were multitasking about 40 percent of the time that they were doing other activities.

Both positive and negative emotions initially increased when participants said they were multitasking, Wang said. But the longer they were working at any main task and multitasking, the less they felt these negative and positive emotions, she noted.

“After a certain amount of time, it may take too much mental energy to process emotional information while trying to complete a task, so the emotional impact of multitasking is attenuated,” Wang said.

Since previous research has established that multitasking can hurt performance, the question is why adolescents — and others — do it, the researchers said.

The fact that the positive emotions that the teens felt about the main task during multitasking was linked to less subsequent multitasking — but negative emotions weren’t— was intriguing, according to Wang.

“It implies that probably adolescents are not trying to use multitasking to manage their negative feelings toward the main task,” she said. “What they were really trying to do is to make the main task, such as homework or chores, a little more rewarding.”

“It suggests that adolescents may be less likely to multitask if they already find their tasks rewarding,” she continued. “Efforts by teachers to make lectures more interactive and efforts by parents to engage children in activities that offer opportunities to play, explore, and learn all should help reduce multitasking.”

It is concerning that the increased negative feelings teens had when they were multitasking didn’t reduce their use of the strategy, the researcher added.

The negative emotions should signal to them that multitasking isn’t working well and that they should concentrate more on the main task to get it done, Wang said.

“We need to find out more about why the negative emotions aren’t decreasing multitasking,” she concluded.

The study was published in the journal Human Communication Research.

Source: The Ohio State University

Multitasking Makes Teens Feel Better — and Worse

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2019). Multitasking Makes Teens Feel Better — and Worse. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 2 Nov 2019 (Originally: 2 Nov 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 2 Nov 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.