WALL STREET JOURNAL

Teen Researchers Defend Media Multitasking

Doing Homework With Music, Texts, Tweets Works Better for Some

What is all that multitasking doing to young brains?  Teen researchers Sarayu Caulfield and Alexandra Ulmer discuss the findings of their study with Sara Murray.  Photo*: Tom Berridge/Oregon Episcopal School.

Some teens doing homework while listening to music and juggling tweets and texts may actually work better that way, according to an intriguing new study performed by two high-school seniors.

The Portland, Ore., students were invited to the annual conference of the American Academy of Pediatrics in San Diego this past weekend to present a summary of their research, which analyzed more than 400 adolescents.  The findings:  Though most teens perform better when focusing on a single task, those who are “high media multitaskers”—about 15% of the study participants—performed better when working with the distractions of email and music than when focusing on a single activity.

The results are a surprise.  Previous research generally has found that people who think they are competent multitaskers actually perform worse than others who try to focus on one thing at a time.  But the latest study looked only at teens and is one of the few multitasking-research projects focused on this age group.  The student researchers suggest this may explain the different outcomes.

What our research is suggesting is that maybe our brains as adolescents and digital natives have adapted to this media influence.

—Alexandra Ulmer, a student researcher in Portland, Ore.

“We really wanted to see how media multitasking is affecting young people,” said Sarayu Caulfield, 17 years old, as she stood beside the poster presentation of the study at the AAP conference.

“What our research is suggesting is that maybe our brains as adolescents and digital natives have adapted to this media influence and because we’ve grown up with it we’re able to cope with all these different stimuli,” said 18-year-old Alexandra Ulmer.

Ms. Caulfield and Ms. Ulmer, who say they aren’t heavy multitaskers themselves, conducted the study as part of the Oregon Episcopal School’s science-research program.  The project, which took two years to complete, placed second in the behavioral-science category at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in May in Los Angeles, the world’s largest precollege science competition.  The teens over the summer presented their research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Washington, D.C., part of the National Institutes of Health.

Nora Volkow, director of NIDA, said she was impressed with the teenagers’ research.  “This study explored whether experience with multitasking affected behaviors controlled by the prefrontal cortex, an area involved in self-control,” she said.  “As more studies of the kind that Alexandra and Sarayu carried out so successfully become published, and as more young people become exposed to these new cognitive modalities, we may find that multitasking is not necessarily always bad,” she said.

In the study, participants were classified as high, medium or low media multitaskers, using a standardized test developed by researchers at Stanford University.  Those rated at the high level reported spending an average of three hours a day multitasking, including at least 50% of the time they were doing homework.  Students at the low level spent 20 minutes a day multitasking on average, and barely at all while doing homework.

Of the 403 total participants, 60 were classified in the high group, 50 in the low group and the rest were moderate media multitaskers.

The students, whose average age was 14½, were randomly sent into one of two rooms where they did a variety of cognitive tests on a computer to make use of their working, or short-term, memory.  In one room, called the multitasking room, students were required to do the tests while listening to music.  They were told they could do whatever they wanted on their phone or computer and to expect one or more emails, which they should respond to as quickly as possible. Not everyone actually received an email.

The students in the nonmultitasking room did the same computer tests but without any distractions.

“What we found is on average most people perform better when focusing on one single task,” said Ms. Ulmer.  “But this one group of people—the high media multitaskers—performed best when they are in a multitasking environment.  The high media multitaskers actually excelled in the multitasking room.”

Another finding:  Participants in the multitasking room who didn’t receive an email, after being told to expect one, performed worse.  “It was the anticipation of receiving an email that was more detrimental to their performance than actually receiving the email,” said Ms. Ulmer.

The tests used in the study involved simple tasks such as identifying whether a particular colored rectangle had moved when scenes on a computer screen were changed.  It isn’t clear if the findings would pertain to more demanding situations, such as multitasking while doing calculus homework.

Ms. Ulmer and Ms. Caulfield said they have begun seeking a scientific journal interested in publishing their study.  They said they would like to continue doing scientific research when they enter college.

The teens received guidance on their research from Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford and a leading researcher on multitasking, who died while the project was under way.  The teens were then aided by Donald Roberts, a professor emeritus in communications at Stanford and an authority on media and youth.

Dr. Nass and colleagues had conducted an earlier study with 100 college-age students.   It found heavy media multitaskers were less effective than people doing one task at a time in such functions as controlling memory, switching between activities and paying attention.  The study was published in 2009 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Heavy media multitaskers’ ability to focus on relevant information and not be captured by the irrelevant was worse,” said Anthony Wagner, a psychology and neuroscience professor at Stanford and a co-author of the 2009 study.  Dr. Wagner said the study and subsequent work by other researchers haven’t been able to answer the question whether the act of heavy media multitasking affects attention and impairs a person’s ability to filter out distractions, or whether the people themselves are naturally that way.

Other research has considered whether media multitasking can change the brain’s structure.  In a study published in September in the online journal PLOS One, researchers from the University of Sussex in England found people who juggle multiple media devices have a lower density of gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain involved in cognitive and emotional processing, compared with people who use one media device at a time.  The study, which took brain scans of 75 adults, didn’t prove multitasking was responsible for the differences in brain structure, the study said.

Some research has indicated there may be a genetic component to people who multitask well.

A 2010 study, conducted at the University of Utah, found there may be a category of people the researchers labeled “supertaskers” who perform extremely well at multitasking.  The study tested 200 participants in a driving simulator and tested them again while also subjecting them to a demanding audio test that included math problems and other challenges.  Most participants showed a significant decline in driving performance when the audio test was added.  But for 2.5% of the people—the supertaskers—there was no change.

Write to Sumathi Reddy at sumathi.reddy@wsj.com

 

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