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19 October 2017

Media Multitasking: Children Easily Distracted by Media

Keywords: computer, experiment, media, multitasking, survey, Western Europe, kids,

Due to increasing access to media, media multitasking has become commonplace. For example, while studying for school, children often use media simultaneously. A study in Journal of Children and Media investigates whether there are differences in media multitasking among children and adults. The study shows that both children and adults find it difficult to focus their attention on a learning activity without being distracted by other media activities. This especially holds for children with attention problems (ADHD).

Take aways

  • Both children and adults experience difficulty focusing on a learning task for ten minutes in the presence of other media activities.
  • Children are more easily distracted by other media activities than adults.
  • Particularly children with attention problems (ADHD) are easily distracted by other media activities.
  • Educators and parents should be aware that children, in particular those with ADHD, are easily distracted by available media activities when working on school-related tasks.
  • Educators and parents could help children by restricting media access during times when children have to focus, such as doing their homework.

Study information

  • The question?

    Are there differences in media multitasking among children and adults?

  • Who?

    164 children between the ages of 6 and 13 years (mean age: 9 years; 51% girls) and 160 adults between the ages of 18 and 75 years (mean age: 42 years; 59% women)

  • Where?

    The Netherlands

  • How?

    Participants were told that they had 10 minutes to train their cognitive skills (main task) on the computer and that afterwards their cognitive skills would be tested. They were also told that when they felt having trained enough or in need for a short break, they could engage in one of the other media tasks (distractor tasks) on the computer. These distractor tasks were presented as tabs, similar to a web browsing session, and consisted of a memory game, cartoon video, and news items.

    After the 10 minutes passed, participants filled out a short online survey about whether they had problems sustaining their attention on tasks (ADHD). Software was used to automatically register participants’ media multitasking behavior (e.g., total amount of time spent on the main task, after how many minutes a switch to a distractor task occurred, and total number of switched between tasks).

Facts and findings

  • The total amount of time participants spent on the main learning task (training their cognitive skills) was on average 5.46 minutes.
  • Participants switched to another media activity after spending 4.22 minutes on the learning task.
  • The average amount of switches between tasks was 3.97 times.
  • Almost half of the children (49%) and one third of the adults (32%) spent less than two minutes on the learning activity before the first switch.
  • Children were more easily distracted by the other media activities (game, video, and news items) than adults: They spent less time on the learning activity, switched faster from the learning activity, and switched more often between tasks.
  • Especially, children who experienced difficulty with sustaining their attention on a task (ADHD) were more easily distracted from the learning activity.
  • However, for adults with ADHD this relationship did not apply.
  • Remarkable fact: Only 12% of the children and 29% of the adults did not switch between tasks at all and engaged in the main task for the whole 10 minutes.