Written by: Josephine Chen '24
Edited by: Jacqueline Cho '24
Technology is always at our fingertips: we can easily reach for the phones in our pockets and computers on our desks. Especially due to the pandemic, children and adults alike are constantly staring at a screen for school and for work. With so much freedom available to us, we are bound to be distracted by our devices while working on our assignments. Unfortunately, current research shows that these distractions caused by multitasking on the media can be connected to memory loss and failure.
Scientists have long known that media multitasking leads to a decrease in productivity levels. Children and young adults, in particular, know how to easily switch between media sources due to the prevalence of technology in both their schools and homes. Past research indicated that in a 15 minute study period, students were able to focus on one assignment for only 65% of the allotted time . In addition, 86% of surveyed college students were reported to be texting during their classes . Such distractions during class led to lower grades and decreased accuracy on a task.
Students multitask mainly because they believe it will improve their efficiency and productivity, while in reality, multitasking achieves the opposite. “Mobile culture” has influenced schools, which justifies the use of laptops and phones in the classroom for non-academic purposes . With access to these devices, students are able to switch between the tabs and open numerous applications at the same time. On top of that, notifications that vibrate and make noises easily take students’ attention away from their current assignment. With such accessible features, it is understandable why students feel so compelled to multitask. Researchers have also discovered that participants switch their tasks when they feel discouraged or unmotivated while working on that assignment .
Current research has connected multitasking with memory loss. In a recent study, scientists wanted to determine why some people have better memory than others, and why particular individuals fail to remember something at a certain moment. Attention lapses and distractions can be evaluated through alpha power and pupil size . The brain releases alpha waves when the body is not focused on a certain activity. Thus, an increase in alpha power signifies that the brain is distracted and wandering. Secondly, when a person’s pupil diameter decreases before starting a task, it indicates a decreased reaction time and a loss of focus on that assignment .
To measure how well participants were able to maintain their attention on one task, they were asked to identify a change in an image shown to them . Multitasking, on the other hand, was determined by reports from participants on how well they were able to use various media sources, such as playing games on their phones, provided to them . The changes in the participants’ brain waves and pupil size were monitored while they completed their memory tasks. The study indicated that participants who reported lower attention spans and increased media multitasking performed worse on the given memory tasks . However, this conclusion is simply a correlation and not a causation.
Now, how does one overcome the distractions of media multitasking? Especially since most, if not all, forms of learning have now moved online, we cannot avoid interacting with the media. However, people can find ways to remain attentive and rid themselves of any distractions prior to learning. Since attention lapses are often caused by sensory stimuli like vibrations and noises, it is best to limit these stimuli by turning off ringers and putting away any cell phones. In addition, keep study sessions short to avoid any negative feelings, such as feeling unmotivated or discouraged, caused by the assignment. People are more likely to remain on one task when inspired by curiosity and excitement.
It is easy to get distracted by the technology and media that is currently within arms reach. However, it is important to take note of the stimuli that cause such attention lapses and keep multitasking to a minimum in order to limit the associated memory failures.
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 Madore KP, Khazenzon AM, Backes CW, Jiang J, Uncapher MR, Norcia AM, et al. Memory failure predicted by attention lapsing and media multitasking [Internet]. Nature News. Nature Publishing Group; 2020 [cited 2020Nov29]. Available from: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2870-z
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