Notes from the VisCom Classroom: The Multitasking Generation

Most of my students in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina are consummate multitaskers.

They came of age as the Internet was hitting its stride, as devices such as MP3 players and smart phones became ubiquitous, and as multimedia on the Web began to replace print journalism as their primary source of information.

In fact, I hardly ever see students doing just one thing. In class, many of them have laptops up and running, and I would bet that not all are being used to take notes.

It is rare to see a student working in the computer lab without a phone or MP3 player available for music and texting, not to mention frequent forays to check Facebook and pick up e-mail.

Even walking down the halls between classes, students seem to require some form of stimulation, whether from earbuds or from their friends via text messages.

Multitasking Is Good, Right?

When I teach visual communications, I tend to stress the advantages of multimedia — pictures, words, text, and music. It just seems to make sense that the most successful storytelling would involve multiple categories of sensory input.

In other words, if reading a story in print conveys a certain amount of information, wouldn’t you be able to convey more information if you add visuals? And if you have photographs, wouldn’t they be more powerful combined with words and music?

Therefore, we should applaud multitasking, because that is precisely what we are asking our brains to do when we respond to multimedia — attend to multiple streams of information simultaneously.

Based on their embrace of multitasking, this generation of students would seem ideally situated to take advantage of everything the brave new world of communications has to offer.

Not Such a Rosy Picture

Well, the picture may not be as rosy as it appears. An article by Nicholas Carr in the June 2010 issue of Wired — adapted from his new book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains — serves up a dose of reality when it comes to multitasking.

Carr has reviewed a number of scientific studies on brain function and multitasking, and his conclusions are troubling.

First of all, according to a 2007 study by UCLA psychiatry professor Gary Small, intensive Internet use actually rewires certain neural pathways in the brain of the user. And this can happen over a short period of time.

In other words, all that Web surfing and Googling has a physiological effect on your brain.

Now, is this good or bad? If the Internet-aided neural rewiring actually improves cognitive and analytical functions, that would be a cause for celebration, right?

The reality, however, seems to be just the opposite. As Carr writes:

Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, and educators point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.

Hyperlink or Hype?

One of the most highly touted features of the Internet is its ability to hyperlink — you can follow a thread of thought from one document to the next via links embedded in the on-screen text.

Yet a 2001 study from Canada by David S. Miall and Teresa Dobson, cited by Carr, suggests that such links may actually impede understanding.

Two study groups read the same short story online. One group simply moved linearly from page to page by clicking the word “next.” The other group clicked on highlighted words in the text to proceed.

The study found that the hypertext group took longer to read the story. But what’s worse, members of the hypertext group were seven times more likely than members of the linear group to report that they didn’t understand what they had read.

Multimedia — Hero or Villain?

If simple embedded text links can create hurdles to comprehension, what is the effect of embedded visual images, including still photographs and video? After all, isn’t the ability to integrate multimedia one of the characteristics of the Web that makes it seem superior to print?

Again, the science seems to raise red flags. The journal Media Psychology published a study designed to test the effect of embedding video in an online factual presentation.

More than 100 volunteers took part in the study. One group watched a text-only presentation about the African country of Mali. The other group watched a presentation that included video.

Both groups were tested on factual recall. The text-only group did significantly better, Carr writes. Also, members of the text-only group said they found the presentation “more interesting, more educational, more understandable, and more enjoyable.”

Disturbing Result

This result flies in the face of what I and my colleagues are teaching our students — namely, that if you want to capture and hold an audience’s interest to convey information, use multimedia.

The result also seems to run counter to the pedagogical trend toward using multimedia in the classroom as a way to keep students interested and engaged — let’s call it “edutainment.”

The Thimble Theory

How to explain this conundrum? Carr writes that “The depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory, the scratch pad of consciousness, to long-term memory, the mind’s filling system.”

He likens this transfer of information to filling a bathtub from a faucet with a thimble.

If we can regulate the flow of the faucet, we can transfer all the water into the bathtub — although it may take a while. This is what happens when we read a book, Carr says. We can vary the pace of our reading to make sure nothing gets lost.

Now picture the Internet — Carr’s metaphor is “many information faucets, all going full blast.” Simply put, the information load overwhelms our brain’s capability, and much useful information gets lost, ignored, or misunderstood.

I Hate to Interrupt, But…

Information overload seems to be a problem inherent in the Internet — which was specifically designed to provide easy access to all the world’s knowledge. But couple this with another seemingly unavoidable characteristic of our daily online experience — constant interruptions.

As Carr writes, “The Internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it.” Multitasking — supposedly a valuable skill possessed by today’s young people — can also be thought of as multiple interruptions.

There is a cognitive cost to constantly bouncing back and forth between text, video, e-mail, Facebook, and other sensory input. Carr says these “switching costs” strain our brains, making us more likely to “overlook or misinterpret important information.”

Good News and Bad News

Yes, there are benefits that accrue to users of computers and the Internet, including improved hand-eye coordination, reflex response, and processing visual cues, Carr writes. A 2003 study in Nature pointed out the benefits of playing video games on the player’s ability to “shift their visual focus between various images and tasks.”

However, a Science article from 2009 that looked at more than 40 studies of media use, learning, and intelligence suggests that Internet use has improved “visual-spatial skills” at the expense of “mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection,” in the words of the article’s author, Patricia Greenfield, a developmental psychologist.

So what’s the final verdict on multitasking — will the seeming ability to do many things at once help or hurt my students in the long run? Is the neural rewiring that is daily taking place in their brains improving or degrading their minds?

A 2009 study conducted at Stanford University and cited by Carr is not encouraging. Comparing “heavy media multitaskers” with “relatively light ones,” the study found the heavy multitaskers had trouble concentrating on a task, were easily distracted, and had memory problems — as compared with the light multitaskers.

Prophets of Doom?

So perhaps the prophets of doom are right: the Internet really does have its tentacles deep in our cerebral cortex. But the threat is not from the purloining of our personal data, the monitoring of our whereabouts, or the access to our sexual and retail preferences. “We are training our brains to pay attention to the crap,” says Michael Merzenich, a noted brain researcher quoted in Carr’s article.

Think about that, the next time you log on. And as always, please share your thoughts.

3 Responses to “Notes from the VisCom Classroom: The Multitasking Generation”

  1. Hi David,

    I found your article very interesting as it confirms much of my own thinking on use of the internet as an
    aid for learning. I found very early on using the internet that the only way I really absorb information I find on it is by reading it through thoroughly before following any of the links that may be provided.

    My conclusion is however distinction can be drawn between older age groups and the younger and has a great deal to do with discipline.

    I noticed, for instance growing up in a family of eight siblings, half of us had the ability to concentrate on given tasks and reach a greater level of understanding for ourselves while the younger ones needed to be constantly lead and stimulated.

    I think this is to do with the different ways in which we were taught at the younger stage which enabled us to achieve a deeper understanding of one thing before moving on to the next.

    The key to successful use of the internet as a tool for learning is in the way students are taught to use it. The starting point needs to be to develop the discipline of reading text in a linear fashion (as we would with text in a book) to absorb the basic meaning before following any of the links provided.

    I am about to go back to follow various links to see what they add to the subject.

    Many thanks for bringing them to my attention.

  2. Hi David

    This article confirms some suspicions I have had about how the internet affects me. I too am a consummate multitasker, but I am finding these days that my brain doesn’t switch from one thing to the next as quickly, and I often find myself having to think for several moments about something that I shouldn’t, and I suspect it is to do with my heavy usage of the internet for work and pleasure. I also find it difficult to concentrate and am usually thinking “just give me the sharp short version, in less than 500 characters”. I also find I don’t read books as much, and I don’t watch much TV anymore. Though I think watching less TV is more about the fact that I can personalize my watching interests through the internet, without advertising and hyperbolic media junk.

    Social applications like Facebook, which combines email, photo and video has also made me disinterested in writing long emails to friends overseas, as why would I bother when I can just look at their most recent photos and status updates to get an insight into how they are doing? But it is such a limited and passive way in which to communicate, looking at someone’s profile, and then thinking, “well I should probably put up my photos from my last trip away to show my friends”, and then you spend time uploading and doing all that stuff for your own profile, but what is actually missing from the whole experience is one on one communication. Facebook is great for so many things, but I am not kidding when I say that sometimes I now think of my life in terms of posts and status updates………..

    And as an artist, multitasking is a must as one normally has to juggle paid jobs with unpaid projects, and when ever there is a quiet moment at work I am thinking about a project I am working on, or googling something quickly, but it all feels very superficial, and my memory doesn’t serve me as well as I would hope sometimes. What’s the cure? Maybe less internet time.


  3. David:

    Overall, some stimulating things to think about. But your cite of the Miall/Dobson study is incomplete without the qualifying information that they were studying "literary" reading, which is quite different from the largely informational reading done online.

    Links in informational reading are generally not designed to allow the reader to advance in the current text (unless it is to go to a specific subsection on the same page - such as internal linking to the subheads you use in this piece), but to expand the reader's universe of available information on the topic, as you have done with yours.

    So while the study makes a good point (and probably confirms the obvious) that we read literature in a different way that does not make such internal links practical, it is of limited usefulness in what you are trying to illustrate here.

    The work on video is not surprising. Video and visuals in general are "hot" media - oft-cited based on McLuhan designed to convey information based on emotion. Hot and "cool" media (i.e. text) are complementary, not fungible. It is perhaps inevitable that once hot media are introduced, they are going to grab the majority of the user's attention, and that is unfortunate. And I too often find that people in our line of work interpret the "multi" in multimedia to mean only the visual and aural.

    But I hope we are teaching our students the complementary aspect and that they understand that effective communication in a multimedia world requires both.

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