New study indicates age plays a key role in the relationship between technology multitasking and cognition

As technology has gotten more popular, multitasking has greatly increased. Nowadays people use their smartphones for a plethora of purposes, all while also engaging with the world around them- but are we really able to focus on all of that at once? A study published in Scientific Reports seeks to investigate how media multitasking is related to multitasking ability.

As smart phones have grown in popularity, it has become more and more common to spend time on multiple different social networking platforms. This has led to “media multitasking” which is the concept of interacting with multiple streams of information while also participating in other events. American youth use technology for approximately 10 hours a day, meaning much of their time is spent engaging in media multitasking.

Multitasking generally has been shown to use significant cognitive abilities, making the performance less strong when a person is trying to do multiple things at once. Due to this, there have been concerns that media multitasking is negative affecting the cognitive abilities of youths. This study seeks to explore this relationship.

Study author Natasha Matthews and colleagues recruited 1,511 participants who visited the National Science and Technology Centre in Australia. Participants ranged in age from 7 years old to 70 years old. Data was collected as a “supervised exhibit” which included six workstations. Participants completed demographic questions, a technology-multitasking survey, and a cognitive multitasking test which included three tasks. All aspects of this study were completed on a digital tablet.

Results showed that high levels of media-multitasking were related to improved multitasking abilities. But this relationship existed solely in participants who were children to young adults, aged 7 to 29. There was a greater cost for media-multitasking in older participants.

“Interestingly, in our data the sign of the relationship between multitasking costs and multi-media use also changes with age from positive in young participants to negative in older participants, suggesting that the demographic composition of participant groups may have significantly influenced the pattern of results observed in previous studies,” the researchers said.

Though this could be due to the constant media consumption of youths “training” their minds to multitask more effectively, the study authors suggest it is more likely due to a parallel relationship where while young people are honing their multitasking abilities and cognitive functioning, they are also increasingly utilizing and consuming media.

“At the same time that multitasking abilities are being established, children devote more of their newfound skills to the various digital technologies at their disposal,” they explained.

This study took important steps into better understanding media-multitasking and cognitive ability. Despite this, it has some limitations. One such limitation is that the researchers utilized a sample of people going to a science center, which may skew toward people with better cognitive abilities. Additionally, this sample was recruited in one city in Australia; future research could include a more diverse sample.

The study, “Media-multitasking and cognitive control across the lifespan“, was authored by Natasha Matthews, J. B. Mattingley, and P. E. Dux.





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