Twitter this: new debate on multitasking

It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that, even as they read this article, at least some USF students are text messaging friends, logging on to Blackboard for assignments, listening to music and checking Facebook. All this activity may give off the illusion of hyper-productivity, but studies suggest that the practice known as “multitasking” might be one of the best ways to underperform.

Recent studies by the University of Michigan and UCLA have both concluded that dividing one’s attention among several different things makes the person less efficient in his or her work, and can cause considerable stress.

In November 2008, the University of Connecticut published the study “Distractions, Distractions: “Does Instant Messaging Affect College Students’ Performance on a Concurrent Reading Comprehension Task?” Researchers found that students engaging in a reading comprehension exercise while carrying on an instant message conversation took significantly longer, indicating that “concurrent IM use negatively affects efficiency.”

Researchers also found that the more students said they instant messaged in everyday life, the lower both their test scores and reported GPA were.

These instances of multitasking are counterproductive, but they are certainly not the most dangerous. A study conducted by the RAC Foundation and the Transport Research Laboratory in the U.K. shows that nearly 50 percent of people aged 18-24 text message while driving. The study also determined that texting while driving is more hazardous than being under the influence of alcohol (up to the legal limit) or marijuana.

If cell phones and the Internet are to blame for robbing the attention span of American youth, Apple’s iPhone could be a prime offender. Apple calls it “a revolutionary phone, a widescreen iPod and a breakthrough Internet device” — a description that screams multitask. Such marketing rhetoric embraces the idea that one device must be able to perform a multitude of tasks, and the 10 million iPhones sold in 2008, as reported by, support the importance society places on the ability to multitask.

And it’s not only students — just ask an adult who tries to hold a phone conversation while typing an e-mail.

USF psychology professor Michael Coovert said any person — child, teen or adult — who tries to do multiple things involving the same brain functions will be hindered.

“The key issue is if the new activity — for example, phone usage — is demanding cognitive or perceptual resources that are already engaged,” he said.

However, Linda Elliott, a research psychologist for the U.S. Army stationed in Fort Benning, Ga, said the product of multitasking depends on the individual.

“Some people can manage their attention processes, process information and perform at higher levels than others,” said Elliot, whose work is concerned with improving soldiers’ multitasking ability.

“If there are several tasks that are related to a single goal — for example, navigating cross-country to a waypoint safely (in enemy territory) — it’s best not to overload a single sensory channel,” she said. “The soldier should not have to be focused on computer screens when he or she needs to be alert to surroundings.”

For this situation, she said a mechanism that vibrates in eight directions could be placed on the soldier’s belt — allowing him or her to navigate hands-free, eyes-free and even, she said, “mind free.”

Research like Elliot’s should help make jobs that require rigorous multitasking easier but doesn’t discredit studies showing multitasking’s negative effects. Whether multitasking is a counterproductive waste of time and efficiency or a useful tool that can be developed, it is something that everyone can expect to increase as technology advances.