Multi-screening: it’s everywhere you look

Preamble: this article is something of a babushka doll of experiments. All text in this colour is my self observation.

In the beginning there was one television screen…well maybe two…well maybe a television, a wireless and a record player and they were all switched on in the same house at the same time. In the kitchen my grandmother had Bishop Fulton Sheen preaching about the evils of modern society, in his bedroom my grandfather was blocking out the world with The Pipkin’s ‘Gimme dat ting’, in the lounge room I sat with my ear and eye pressed up to the television, so close that Sesame Street had become an assortment of coloured squares.”Marguerite! She’s too close to the telly.” my grandmother would yell at my mum. (got up and put on a load of washing)

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Flash forward thirty years (no I’m not exaggerating), I’m watching a Netflix movie, writing a blog on my macbook and carrying out a conversation by SMS with my friend who is at work in a factory somewhere else in Sydney. (Timer for 5min break went off – put away dishes and made toast) All this is building towards proof that multi-screening is just a natural progression of past behaviour.  Please note it has not been listed as a good progression, just a natural one.

Our task for this week in BCM240 was to construct a small experiment to observe someones attention in the presence of many devices (just toggled to another screen & touched my phone and started my Pomodoro timer) . Given that I have a house of guinea pigs that I gave birth to, their normal behaviour was prime for observing.

Friday afternoon – OBSERVATION BEGINS

15:00 – Picked subjects up from school

15:08 – Subject 1 (10) picks up iPad that was left in car from this morning, commences playing games.

15:08:01 – Subject 2 (6)  – commences complaints over Subject 1’s possession of iPad and continues for entire 10 min drive to residence.

 15:20  – Subject 1 walks into residence without lifting head from iPad. Subject 2 turns on only television set in the lounge room and grabs mothers phone to stream youtube to television.

15:26 – Subject 1 & 2 sit in lounge room watching streamed television. Subject 1 is STILL playing games on iPad. Subject 2 continues to to complain about not having own device.

15:28 – Subject 1 is affected by subject 2’s whining and fetches old iPod for subject 2.

15:36 – Subject 1 & 2 are both playing games on handheld devices whilst watching Youtube on television.


During this time there was complaints about hunger, requests by me to get dressed for afternoon activities, none of which can been done whilst occupied with an electronic device.  All other activity slows or stops when occupied by the device. I’m not alone as shown by the Dolmio family swap experiment below.

(Took a 15 min break away from computer…. checked my phone of course, took out compost, brought in bins & local paper – apparently there’s issues with the NBN).

Hypothesis’ around multi-screening and multi-tasking has traditionally taken the opinion of you can only do one thing at a time well. But is that factual or is that my grandmothers ghost whispering in my ear about the idiot-box of a new-age?  In a 2013 report by Pashler, Kang and Ip from the University of California they discussed different types of multi-tasking, separating it under labels such as ‘divided attention, task switching, interrupting and dual-task performance.’Pashler, Kang & Ip (2013, p.598) Whilst showing that interrupting had almost no impact as opposed to dual-task performance showing significant impact. Of most interest was the impact of time on the person performing the multi-tasking.

Multi-tasking produced a marked and substantial reduction in information acquired from educational materials when the materials were presented in spoken form and played without waiting for the learner. On the other hand, when the learner read the materials at his or her own pace, there was no sizable or significant reduction in information acquired. This was true even when the interruptions occurred at the moments chosen by the experimenter, rather than the learner. Finally, listening to the materials and pausing to do the concurrent task were also relatively harmless.”Pashler, Kang and Ip (2013, p.597)

(kids just came home, kissed them, deposited them in the lounge room with their  devices and television) The possible ‘non-harm’ idea is explored further in a 2016 article titled ‘Negative bias in media multitasking: the effects of negative social media messages on attention to television news broadcasts.’ The article itself is focussed on research into the belief that negative attention draws more attention than positive. Relevant to this discussion however was the observation that ‘[P]revious studies have typically examined distractor tasks that have been irrelevant for the primary media task. In contrast, the attentional processing of two complimentary media tasks could benefit from the semantic similarity between the tasks.’Kätsyri, Kinnunen, Kusumoto, Oittinen and Ravaja (2016, p.3) The paper goes on to reference how the brain processes two related tasks as one semantic matter.

(Have to interrupt a fight, apparently miss 6 is not giving miss 10’s iPad back… made peace by giving miss 6 the iPod)

I would like to clarify that both the papers mentioned do not recommend multitasking and do not shy away from research that has shown the negative effects on activities such as study. They also mention that studies on the effects of multitasking with reference to multimedia on memory will be useful. (What was I talking about again?)

As shown above my own ability to multi-task is severely impaired by my circumstance and possibly learned habits of switching between tasks. This did not originate with new media devices, but is definitely enabled by them. It will be interesting in years to come to see  longitudinal studies that have the benefit of long-term data, which I don’t think is possible when so much of this technology is relatively new.

There is a lot of data against multi-tasking or about multi-device use from the perspective of an exciting commercial opportunity for retailers. It will be interesting to see the neural studies as time moves on as brain plasticity acclimatises to (interrupted by miss 6 to spell something on youtube search) our new ‘normal’ way of using electronic devices for more screen hours per day.



Pashler, H, Kang, SK, Ip, RY 2013,’Does multitasking impair studying? Depends on timing’, Applied Cognitive Psychology, vol. 27, No.5, p.p.593-599

Kätsyri, J, Kinnunen, T, Kusumoto, K, Oittinen, P, Ravaja, N 2016, ‘Negativity bias in media multitasking: the effects of negative social media messages on attention to television news broadcasts’, PLoS ONE, vol.11, No.5, p.p.1-21

Feature image taken by Fougerouse Arnaud in Koh Chang Thailand. Used under non-commercial creative commons.



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