Today, the vast majority of us multitask while using our smartphones. We play games, email, surf social media, text, and use apps and other functions while watching television, eating, doing work, or while "engaged" in a conversation with another person. Multitasking has become such a regular part of our lives that most of us believe we do it well—and few imagine it could actually be dangerous.
But new research is exposing how multitasking can actually have alarming consequences. And to be clear, I do not use the term "alarming" lightly, as should become clear from the following list:
1. Multitasking is associated with harm to our brains.
A recent study found that people who were frequent media multitaskers had reductions in their brains’ grey matter—specifically, in areas related to cognitive control and the regulation of motivation and emotion.
2. Multitasking can lead to memory problems.
This 2016 study found that chronic media multitaskers exhibited weakness in both working memory (the ability to store relevant information while working on a task) and long-term memory (the ability to store and recall information over longer periods of time).
3. Multitasking can lead to increased distractibility.
Researchers studied people’s multitasking at home over a seven-day period, and found that the more people multitasked, the more likely they were to exhibit behavioral distractibility. Current assumptions are that by responding to so many distractions one loses the ability to distinguish between important and unimportant interruptions.
4. Multitasking can make us walk into traffic.
Researchers compiled information on 1,400 pedestrians in New York City who were hit by a car, and discovered that 20 percent of teenagers reported being distracted by a mobile device when they were struck, compared to only 10 percent of adults.
5. Multitasking hurts your grades and the grades of those around you.
A study of multitasking in the classroom found that students who multitasked on their computers during a lecture scored lower on their exams—as did classmates who were in direct view of them. This is why we hate other people texting on their phones when we're at the movies: It's distracting even when we're not the ones doing the texting.
6. Multitasking can lead to falling and breaking bones.
A study of the elderly found that multitasking was likely to affect women’s gait, leading to a significantly greater number of falls and broken bones.
7. Multitasking can harm your relationship.
Smartphones create such an immediate threat of multitasking and distractibility that they are associated with relationship problems—what researchers now call technoference—and multitaskers caused their partners to experience significantly reduced relationship satisfaction.
8. Multitasking increases chronic stress.
A study of college students found that the more students multitasked while using their computers the more stress they experienced. The constant bombardment of information to which they were trying to respond elevated their stress responses, which means that chronic multitasking can lead to chronic stress.
Researchers examined the link between multitasking, media use, and emotional health. While there was no correlation between media use and negative outcomes in this particular study, the team did find that the more participants multitasked, the more likely there were to report symptoms of depression and social anxiety.
10. Multitasking makes you less productive and less efficient.
Researchers examined if multitasking makes us more productive and efficient. The results, while not alarming per se, did still demonstrate the exact opposite of what most multitaskers believe, as they revealed that multitasking actually made participants less efficient and productive.
- For a book full of science-based techniques you can apply to your daily life, check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).
- Watch my viral TED Talk about boosting your emotional health
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Copyright 2016 Guy Winch
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