Multitasking may be defined as the performance of two or more informationprocessing activities simultaneously. The term originated in computer science as a description of a central processor performing two or more tasks at the same time. In the context of communication and media studies, multitasking is the term used for the situation in which an individual is using a medium while doing one or more other information-processing tasks at the same time. If multitasking pertains to using two or more media simultaneously, for example the combination of watching television and reading the newspaper, one can speak of “media multitasking” (e.g., Foehr 2006) or simultaneous use of (multiple) media.
Assumptions And Explanations
Although most people are used to doing more than one thing at a time, the term “multitasking” generally applies only to combinations of information-processing activities, with the (unspoken) assumptions that (1) combining non-information-processing tasks, such as smoking a cigarette while washing the dishes, is easy, whereas (2) combining information-processing tasks, such as doing homework while watching TV, is more difficult, and information might get lost.
The second assumption is based on the “limited capacity” information-processing model (e.g., Basil 1994; Kahneman 1973; Lang 2000). This model holds that people are continuously busy with selecting and processing (i.e., encoding, storing, and retrieving) information and that the ability to process information is limited. Information might get lost because a person chooses to allocate too few resources to a task, or because a task requires more resources than the person has available. In multitasking, the tasks compete for limited information-processing resources, which might result in an overload of information exceeding the processing capacity, so that only part of the information can be processed and the rest of the information is lost.
Limited-capacity theorists hold two alternative views to explain capacity overload when people are multitasking (Bourke et al. 1996). One view is that there is a general processing capacity that can be exceeded: information processing might suffer when two or more tasks require more capacity than is available in our general resources. Another view is that resources work more specifically. Overload might occur when two tasks compete for the same specific information-processing resource and the capacity of the specific resource is exceeded, a phenomenon called “structural interference” (Bourke et al. 1996). According to this view, tasks might interfere with each other even if the total processing capacity is not exceeded. Structural interference may arise, for example, when reading is combined with watching a talk show, because both activities require the processing of linguistic information.
A supplementary explanation as to why multitasking might lead to loss of information is that some messages elicit “orienting responses” (Lang 2000). Orienting responses involve automatic allocation of resources to a medium as a reaction to novel or interesting stimuli such as sound effects, visual complexity, movements, cuts, and zooms presented in a television program (Lang 2000). If a medium elicits orienting responses, most or all of the processing resources are allocated to the newly presented stimulus, with the result that fewer or no resources are left to process the former (non-eliciting) information-processing task(s). A distinction should be made between primary and secondary information-processing tasks. An example is when a person is reading a newspaper (primary task) while using the radio as a background medium (secondary task). Another example is a student doing homework while having the TV on in the background. The idea is that people choose to focus most of their attention on the primary task and little attention on the secondary task. During multitasking, primary tasks may become secondary and secondary tasks may become primary when the originally secondary task asks for more attention. An example is when a person (almost) stops reading the newspaper because most of their attention is focused on an interesting song on the radio.
There are two types of studies on multitasking. One type of study pertains to the question of whether multitasking is done frequently, whereas the other type focuses on possible problems in information processing during multitasking. A recent study among American 8 –18 year olds (Foehr 2006) shows that for young people multitasking is very common. This conclusion is based on two types of data: survey data collected among a representative US sample (N = 2,032) and diary data collected among a sub-group of the sample (N = 685). When asked how often additional media were used when using each of four media (print, TV, music, and computer), a majority of the adolescents (53 percent or more) reported media multitasking “most of the time” or “some of the time.” Depending on the type of media, only 12 –19 percent said they “never” engaged in media multitasking. The diary data, in which time spent with multiple media use was measured regardless of primary or secondary use, showed that for 17 percent of the time, television viewing was combined with another medium. Much higher percentages were found for media combinations while using email (83 percent), visiting websites (74 percent), instant messaging (74 percent), playing computer games (67 percent), and doing homework on the computer (60 percent).
Additional data that did make a distinction between primary and secondary media use showed that television (to which young people still devote the biggest amount of time) is the least likely and computer the most likely primary medium to be shared with other media. For example, of the total time devoted to computer use as a primary activity, 27 percent was spent doing secondary tasks on the same computer (i.e., computer-based multitasking), 13 percent on listening to music, 8 percent on reading, and 7 percent on doing homework (not on the computer). There is some evidence that media multitasking among young people is increasingly popular: whereas in 1999 children aged 8 –18 spent 16 percent of their media time on multiple media use, in 2004 the percentage had risen to 26 percent (Roberts et al. 2005). Adults are also engaged in media multitasking: one study estimated that almost 24 percent of adults’ media time is spent with more than one medium (Papper et al. 2004).
Until now, although there was earlier psychological research on distraction effects of background noise or speech (e.g., Broadbent 1979; Salamé & Baddeley 1989), few media studies focused on possible distraction effects when multitasking. A series of studies conducted by Armstrong and colleagues indicated that background television might cause performance decrements in reading comprehension and spatial problem-solving (Armstrong & Greenberg 1990), and that deleterious effects on reading arise during the encoding process (Armstrong & Chung 2000). A series of experiments conducted by Pool and colleagues showed that the content of the media background is influential, with radio music and music video clips (such as shown on MTV) not leading to decreases in homework performance (Pool et al. 2000, 2003a), but background TV soaps causing a decreased performance on difficult tasks and extension of the time needed to complete the tasks (Pool et al. 2003b).
Many questions about multitasking are still unanswered. Does multitasking really involve doing more than one task simultaneously or does it involve switching between tasks? Observational data indicate that when concurrent tasks ask for much attention, people switch between tasks (e.g., Pool et al. 2003b; Schmitt et al. 2003), although some monitoring attention may be focused on the secondary task while doing the primary task.
To what degree does experimental research on media effects overestimate effects now that we know that in daily life people are frequently multitasking? What are the effects of media multitasking? As compared with media behavior 50 years ago, nowadays the explosion of new forms of communication seems to have reshaped our media behavior, with many more media concurrently competing for our attention.
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