Does My Brain Have Too Many Tabs Open?
Updated: Mar 24
From the families that huddled around a little picture box as it debuted the first talkies, to the countless hours Steve Jobs and Wozniak spent in a garage inventing the first Mac computers, we have been immersed in a world of media. We have spent so much time surfing the world wide web, that between the early nineties and 2009, our numbers of daily tech use doubled. Given that the iPhone was only two years old at the time, one can imagine the exponential growth of our digital footprints. Recent data shows that American teenagers spend on average, more than 11 hours per day engaging in the media, while tweens average more than 7 hours per day—with recent data showing similar numbers worldwide. Nowadays the question for most is not whether they have some variant of media device, but how many they have.
The age of technology is not slowing down anytime soon, neither are the scientists eager to study this topic. In 2017, Melina Uncapher of UC San Francisco, and Anthony Wagner of Stanford, published an insightful review of current research on this topic. They specifically looked at media multitasking—using two or more media platforms simultaneously—(e.g. TV, computers, music, social media, virtual games, email, texting) and whether it has an effect on cognitive performance—the brain’s ability to perceive and process knowledge, thought, senses, and experiences. Their article, entitled “Minds and brains of media multitaskers”, reported that compared to infrequent media multitaskers, frequent media multitaskers often struggle to focus and perform poorly when given simple cognitive tasks. These tasks included how long one can hold their attention on an image with several distractions in the room.
In other words, neuroscientists are finding that the more time spent using at least two or more media streams, the more that particular thinking processes are negatively impacted, such as working memory—a form of short-term type of memory used for reasoning, decision-making, and focus.
What Does That Mean For Us?
While I typically don’t spend eleven hours a day connected to a device, at least that I’m aware of, I’d certainly be remiss if I counted myself out of the group of frequent media multitaskers. Even now, as I sit here trying to type this blog, the allure of media multitasking is everywhere. I’m sure it happens to all of us at some point. You start out productive, checking off the first couple of tasks on your to-do list, stopping occasionally to mix up the Spotify queue that’s running in the background. Every few minutes your phone beeps and now you have to stay focused and find the resolve to ignore the temptations of Facebook, emails, texts, the list goes on. With the COVID pandemic keeping us inside, we may find ourselves with way more time and proximity to the various media that endlessly beg us for their attention than ever before.
One might think: Well, what could that possibly have to do with cognitive performance? Unfortunately, with each digital distraction, our ability to focus on a task and hold attention long enough to remember what was just said or seen may very well be at risk!
Twenty of the studies reviewed by Uncapher and Wagner examined the impact media multitasking has on working memory. Half of them revealed that the heavy media-multitasking subjects performed the worst at the tasks given to test information-processing and storage tasks. The other half of the studies showed either little or no difference between the frequent media-multitaskers and the occasional, infrequent multitaskers.
Of course, not every aspect of our cognitive thinking appears to be affected by media multitasking. Three of the studies found no relationship between the rates of media multitasking and the ability to perform other non-digital tasks simultaneously. Other scientists investigated the effects of media multitasking on change-detection, or the ability to notice the differences between two similar-looking objects. They similarly observed no significant distinction between the media multitaskers versus the non-multitaskers. None of the studies, however, provided evidence that frequent media multitasking can improve a person’s cognitive abilities. Plainly, even if listening to music or watch Netflix and while you write an essay might not always be harmful, it has never been proven to be helpful.
Technology is not going away, and the longer we as a society are stuck behind closed doors, the more alluring it all becomes. After all, that news alert could be important! That email notification could contain urgent information from your employers regarding future plans. You have to respond to your neighbor or take that ten-minute Facebook break because virtual companionship is the only social engagement you have left to keep from going full stir-crazy! More and more it seems, everything is a priority. Nonetheless, it is imperative that we keep our minds sharp and educate ourselves about the detrimental side-effects of media multitasking.