Heavy media multitasking and cognitive control abilities

By Winnie Tam, Centre for University and School Partnership, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Reblogged from Best Evidence in Brief

Media multitasking has become increasingly common, with individuals simultaneously using multiple forms of media (e.g., listening to music while chatting on social media). Heavy media multitaskers may experience difficulties in cognitive control abilities, including inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. The “scatter attention hypothesis” suggests that heavy media multitaskers are more easily distracted by irrelevant information, leading to poorer performance on cognitive tasks. To investigate the association between media multitasking frequency and cognitive control, Kong and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis comparing the cognitive control abilities of heavy media multitaskers (HMM) and light media multitaskers (LMM). They also examined potential moderators, such as age, by analyzing two groups: adolescents (12-18 years old) and young adults (18-35 years old).  

The sample included 118 effect sizes from 43 studies that compared at least one component of executive function between HMM and LMM using the media multitask index (MMI). The results of the three-level meta-analysis revealed that heavy multitaskers performed significantly worse than light multitaskers on cognitive control tasks (ES = -0.23), with the most notable impact observed in inhibitory control (ES = -0.31), followed by working memory (ES = -0.24) and cognitive flexibility (ES=-0.05). No significant difference was found between adolescents (ES=-0.39) and young adults or college students (ES=-0.20) in terms of the difference in cognitive function between HMM and LMM.  

The findings suggest that engaging in media multitasking more frequently is likely to result in poorer performance in inhibitory control and working memory. Therefore, it is important to investigate the implications of heavy media use in educational settings.