Dr. Clifford Nass of Stanford University gave a lecture in the Mosher Alumni House last night, exploring the cognitive and social-emotional effects of chronic media multi-tasking.
According to Nass, the average Stanford student uses three forms of media— whether it’s texting, listening to music, or watching YouTube videos— simultaneously, which suggests other college students may as well. With such high levels of daily technology use, it may be safe to say that a majority of college students engage in excessive daily multi-tasking.
Michael Gazzaniga, Director of the Sage Center for the Study of the Mind, said the Sage Center invited Nass to speak on account of the quality of his research on media multi-tasking.
“The reputation of his lecture series is such that we thought he would be exceptional,” Gazzaniga said.
Nass’ research has led to the development of a dynamic known as partial media displacement, which is when a new product or service is released and it steals time away not only from other non-informational activities but also from informational activities and socially rich interaction.
Recent years, however, have seen what Nass calls the horizontalization of media use, in which people, without enough hours in the day to use all of the media they would like to, have turned to using multiple forms at once.
High media multi-tasking, Nass said, has profoundly negative effects on executive function in the brain. For one, media multitasking makes it difficult for people to focus on the relevant and notice the irrelevant, and while high media multi-taskers have reduced inattention blindness, they have trouble completing tasks asked of them.
Multi-tasking also negatively affects writing quality. In a study comparing essays written online by low and high media multi-taskers, when user-posted content was visible on a side-bar, it was found that low media multi-taskers’ essays were better than those of high media multi-taskers. This could explain why students who are easily distracted typically don’t do well academically unless they channel their energies into the scholarly task they’re working to achieve.
Additionally, high media multi-taskers cannot manage their working memories as well as low media multi-taskers can and are like “pack rats of information,” Nass said. They simply can’t help continually struggling with completing the tasks that are actually at hand. “Ironically, high media multi-taskers are bad at multi-tasking,” Nass said.
High media multi-tasking doesn’t bode much better for emotion. According to Nass, emotion is learned through tending to others in physical ways, such as through body language and gestures. Texting and online forms of communication, however, allow people to choose to let their emotions play out slowly rather than in real time, as they are meant to.
“Facebook has become the happiest place on Earth,” Nass said. “It’s replaced Disneyland.”
The fact that there is a “like” button but no “dislike” button is the perfect example of this, and yet this supposed happiness is actually proving to be detrimental to emotional development.
Nass founded and directs the Communication between Humans and Interactive Media (CHIMe) Lab and the Revs Program at Stanford and he co-directs the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University (C.A.R.S.). He has published three books and over 150 papers on the psychology of technology and statistical methodology and plans to research the “inability” to stop multi-tasking, amongst other areas of research.