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Carroll School of Management

Marketing Professors Research Multitasking With Multimedia

In their new study, professors Adam Brasel and James Gips find we all multitask between multimedia much more than we think

Research shows media is failing to maintain long-term attention of users.
Research shows media is failing to maintain long-term attention of users.

August 22, 2011

On the head of their successes with their Red Bull “Gives you Wings” research, Professors S. Adam Brasel and James Gips of the Boston College Carroll School of Management produced some new research about how effectively, or ineffectively, we multi-task as we work with multimedia.

The researchers looked at what people are doing and thinking as they engage in “media multitasking,” switching their attention back and forth between multiple media. The study is pivotal, Brasel says, an associate professor of marketing at the Carroll School, given that current media studies show that 59 percent of Americans now use the television and Internet simultaneously.

Additionally, the amount of time using these two multimedia activities grew by 35 percent per household in 2009 alone. (This was according to a study released in 2010 by the Nielsen Company called the “Three Screen Report”). At the same time, media research suggests that people have limited conscious insight into their media behavior, so self-insight and “lay theory” as to how people multitask across media may have little connection with actual behavior.

The Brasel and Gips article; "Media Multitasking Behavior: Concurrent Television and Computer Usage" was published online in April with Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking. Already Men’s Health magazine, United Press Service and the Los Angeles Times have given additional coverage along with multiple publications overseas.

How the Study Was Performed

The professors brought 20 younger students and 22 older staff members into their media lab individually. Participants were seated in front of an internet-connected computer and cable-connected television, and had thirty minutes to use either media in any way they wanted. Unobtrusive video cameras recorded where the participants were looking and what sort of media was on each screen. Brasel says that he and Gips were looking for how often the participants switched their focus between the two media, and for how long their attention was kept at each.

What the Researchers Found

When interviewed after the study, participants thought that they had switched their focus roughly 15 times on average during the study. In fact, the cameras revealed most subjects switched their attentions an average of 120 times within the half hour. The average length of gaze on either media was quite small: roughly two seconds for the television and roughly six seconds for the computer. Brasel says that these results are shocking, “It’s especially alarming that nobody seemed aware that their attention was changing in such a rapid-fire way.”

The Implications of the Research

Brasel says the lessons learned from this is that most media is clearly failing to maintain the long-term attention of its users. This rapid-fire switching of attention back and forth also appears to be happening outside of conscious awareness, and we are not actively aware of how we go about our multitasking behavior. And by switching our focus between media so rapidly, it is unclear on how much content is actually absorbed. He adds that these results highlight the importance of further exploring multimedia multitasking and show that self-monitoring offers only limited insight into how we truly interact with multimedia.

The professors see this study as a first in a series. Subsequent studies will address precisely why people switch their focus and the true implications of doing so. The professors see several unanswered questions: Does the mere presence of media alternatives pressure users to switch attention? Are there specific sensory triggers that create or inhibit switching behavior? And what similar traits do we see in users inspired to switch?