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Using multiple screens. Do I have your attention?

Posted by Colin Klupiec on April 8, 2014 at 4:38 PM

How many screens have you got in the house? How many do you watch at the same time? It wouldn’t be surprising if you had to sit back and think about that for a minute or two. It’s not like the old days where you’d be lucky to have one TV in the house and you’d gather around to watch a special show with the whole family. The average family collection of devices would probably include a desktop computer, a laptop or two, a tablet or two, and almost certainly a smart phone for everyone. And that doesn’t include the televisions. It could be up to 10 screens per household.

Do you ever use more than one at a time? Have you considered the effects on your attention?

A paper published in 2011 on multiple screen use reported that having multiple screens resulted in incredible rates of attention switching. The experiment was quite simple. They got 42 people from a large east coast US university, a mixture of students and staff, to enter a room where there was a laptop computer with internet access, and a TV on the wall with remote control. The TV had access to the university cable system. They were told to interact with the devices any way they liked for 30 minutes. Over this time their behaviours were observed by video camera and recorded. The actual time for recording their behaviours was 27.5min.

“People switched between media at an extreme rate, averaging more than 4 switches per min and 120 switches over the 27.5minute study exposure. Participants had little insight into their switching activity and recalled their switching behaviour at an average of only 12 percent of their actual switching rate revealed in the objective data.” (Brasel & Gips, 2011)

Imagine that. Only two devices were present, and participants were switching their attention every 15 seconds or so. Of more interest, in my opinion, is that the participants massively underestimated their own switching behaviour. In other words, they weren’t aware of their own switching behaviour when using the technology. The study also talks about gaze time. In the time that participants were looking at either type of media, gaze time was less than 5 seconds for “75% of television and 49% of computer” time. This raises some interesting questions about what you can actually take in over 5 seconds. Do we need more than 5 seconds of looking at something to learn or take in information? Of course, it depends on the information. It only takes a second to check the weather temperature, but more complex things would take much longer… one would expect.

This has implications for technology in schools and at home for learners, young and old. When it comes to learning, there seems to be a prevailing view that technology is a good thing, and that learning is taking place just because it’s there. It’s also tempting to therefore say the more the better. But as we saw from this experiment, media multitasking is not without its problems. The researchers concede that there are more questions raised than answers given in this study. One of the main comments was that this research was conducted when the participants were alone, and there were only two media devices. What about school? There are usually heaps of people around, and many devices. Have we really been tracking the effect this has on attention? Given that attention is one of the major necessary cognitive functions for learning and doing complex tasks, the act of using multiple screens simultaneously deserves some consideration for each of us.

Colin Klupiec

Click here to read the full paper.

Brasel, S. A., & Gips, J. (2011). Media Multitasking Behavior: Concurrent Television and Computer Usage. CyberPsychology, Behavior & Social Networking, 14(9), 527-534. doi: 10.1089/cyber.2010.0350

Topics: Attention

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