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Julie Dobrow Headshot

So Many Screens, So Little Time

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My 13-year-old son is in the other room playing an online soccer game with other kids which he's displaying on the TV while he's "watching" a rerun of Parks and Recreation on his laptop. Oh, and he's getting instant messages from some of his friends online, too. This sort of media multi-tasking is not unusual for his generation. Although I've always thought of myself as a very good multi-tasker, what my youngest son, my other children and my students can do simultaneously far exceeds my own capabilities.

When I speak to parents' groups, I hear a lot of concern about whether their children's media multi-tasking is problematic in terms of their kids' ability to concentrate or focus. Media multi-tasking is also a concern to some of my colleagues at Tufts University, several of whom make students pledge not to go on Facebook or shop online during class. Some colleagues have even taken the step of banning laptops from their classrooms.

Indeed, media multi-tasking is pervasive. A 2012 study conducted with over 12,000 respondents in a dozen different countries found a stunning 62 percent reported using some form of social media simultaneously with watching television on one type of screen or another. This was an 18 percent increase over the rate that the same organization using the same method had found just a year earlier.

We don't have really good data on just how pervasive media multi-tasking is among children, though any parent, teacher or professor will tell you, "very." A 2008 Princeton University/Brookings Institution Future of Children report found that "... children's simultaneous use of different media, or media multi-tasking, is at an all-time high." A 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation report found that among a large sample of eight-18-year-olds, the proportion of time children spend using media simultaneously had steadily risen over the decade that they'd been collecting such data, and was at 29 percent in 2009. In other words, children's total media use time had increased because they were actually using more forms of media at the same time.

It's important to remember that exposure to media isn't necessarily the same thing as media use. Researchers don't always make this distinction clearly. This is why we should look with caution at some of the statistics about the amount of time kids spend using media. A child can be communicating with friends on Facebook while the TV is on the background, but that doesn't necessarily mean the child is actively watching the TV. I always tell my students that "amount of time watching television" is probably the most used and the most poorly defined variable in all of communication research, because really, what does it mean to watch TV? Don't most of us do something else while the TV is on?

But today's new media platforms make multiple media use easier, faster and no doubt, all the more prevalent. Smartphones and tablets haven't been studied too much yet, but it's very clear that today's children are growing up in a world in which media multi-tasking is all the more a norm.

What are its effects? Should we be worried?

In an article in the Journal of the American Psychological Association, Rebecca Clay wrote that several researchers had found media multi-taskers to work less productively and to be somewhat less able to integrate and apply new information in different contexts. And other researchers, she wrote, have questioned whether media multi-tasking includes juggling interpersonal relationships in ways that might be difficult or superficial.

There's some suggestion that our ability to multi-task might diminish as we age. We don't quite know about whether kids' abilities to media multi-task will also decrease as they pass into their 30s or beyond, because longitudinal research hasn't yet been conducted. The research about whether women/girls or men/boys are better multi-taskers is all over the place; more studies than not seem to conclude that those who carry the XX chromosome are somewhat better multi-taskers but that might just be because they do it more often. And again, we don't yet know much about how gender might play a role in children's media multi-tasking.

But more recently, many researchers representing different fields convened at Stanford University to present studies and discuss not only what is known about media multi-tasking, but also what is not. Some of the main take-aways in this report are that, frankly, there are still more questions than answers about how children operate in a multi-media world. It's important to start to get some clarity about how we define terms like "media multi-tasking" (different researchers have thought of it as different things). Because of this, it's hard to compare results across studies. There are more new media platforms with which children might multi-task coming out all the time. We also need to come up with new ways of studying media multi-tasking because the kinds of methods we've used in the past, like surveys, probably don't do an adequate job of capturing either what kids do or what media multi-tasking means in their lives.

It's also important, these researchers concluded, to accept the reality that a multi-screen, multi-task world probably means changes in education, the workplace and perhaps even in childhood and parenting.

But before we allow ourselves to worry too much about this new world of media multi-tasking, the group at Stanford also suggested that "panic and fear should not be permitted to obscure the upsides and creative potential unleashed by multitasking technology. Research must look at all sides."

So stay tuned -- on many channels. And by the way, in the time I've been writing this, I notice that my 13-year-old is now not only playing FIFA soccer and watching TV on his laptop, but also texting friends on his cell phone.