Point, click, swoosh, ping: why multitasking is making us all mindless

Researchers gave students 15 minutes to read some coursework. On average, they lasted two minutes before checking Facebook. I know how they feel


It has taken me nearly 30 minutes to write this sentence, and it’s not even the sentence I was planning to write.

I was halfway through what should have been my brilliant first line when my phone beeped. It was a notification from Instagram. I read it, closed it and returned to my screen. Then my computer pinged: an instant message from my husband, checking up on our daughter, who had fallen earlier in the park. I read it, Googled “broken nose” and, 15 minutes later, concluded she didn’t have one. I got back to work.

Then my phone pinged again, with a text from my brother-in-law. I replied to him. Then I put my phone on silent and placed it upside down on my desk. But it was too late: I’d forgotten what I was going to write.

This is the way we work now: in a constant state of distraction, not so much multitasking as hopping mindlessly between tasks. If you’re reading this article online, you’re unlikely to get through it without stopping to check your Facebook or your email. And even if you plough on undistracted, you probably still won’t remember as much of it as you would have if you’d come across it in paper form.

You may argue that is no great loss. But think of all the words you’ve invested in over the past week, or the past year, and ask yourself how many of them actually contributed anything to your understanding of the world. How many could you even recall an hour or two later? Whose fault is that – the author’s exclusively? Or is it also your own?

A question currently preoccupying some of those who study human behaviour is what happens over time to brains that are subjected to this barrage of competing distractions: phones flashing and beeping; email accounts berating you with a pile of unread mails; Facebook and Twitter constantly trying to lure you away.

The truth is that we don’t know. Most of this technology is so new that the studies simply haven’t had time to catch up. But the signs aren’t good.

One study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, the details of which were recently published in the New York Times , looked at how well we recover our concentration when we’re interrupted by something like a text message. The answer: not very.

The study of 136 people found that those who were interrupted during a straightforward comprehension test performed 20 per cent worse than those who weren’t. Interestingly, the study found that once the participants had been told to expect a text message that never came, they actually upped their game, improving their own performance by 45 per cent – an encouraging sign that suggests our brains may be capable of adapting to tune out the noise.

I have been spending a bit of time lately doing research in the library of the university where I did my undergraduate degree nearly 20 years ago. In some ways, not much has changed. It still has the comforting, musty smell of old books. It is still too cold in winter and too hot in summer. The sandwiches are as terrible as I remember.

But in other ways, it is unrecognisable. Where once the library was a sea of students bent over their books and scribbling into foolscaps, now it’s an ocean of people sitting upright, faces bathed in the soft white light of their laptop screens.

I spent a lot of my student years staring into space: the students around me seem to spend even more time staring into Spotify or Facebook. I can’t help wondering which of us was better off.

A study by American psychology professor Larry Rosen published this month in the journal Computers in Human Behavior involved observing 263 university students who had been told to spend 15 minutes “studying something important” related to their course.

On average, the students lasted two minutes before they stopped what they were doing to check their Facebook or their email. By the time the 15 minutes were up, they had spent 65 per cent of their time “on task”, and the other 35 per cent distracted. And these were students who knew they were being watched.

Equally worrying are the studies that show that we absorb information differently and less effectively when we read it on screen, than when we read on paper. In short, we seem to take in more when we turn pages, than when we swipe and scroll.

Other studies have shown a range of specific, detrimental effects of the constant barrage of alerts, beeps and notifications to students at work on a task. The task takes longer. The students are more likely to make mistakes. They don’t remember the information they’re working on as well, or at all. They distract other people working around them.

Armed with all of this new research, should we really be in such a rush to furnish schoolchildren with smartphones and tablets? Replacing schoolbooks with iPads may help children’s back problems – but the jury is out on how much it will help their education.

I like screens; sometimes, I even love them. But the things that I most appreciate are also the things that worry me. At some point over the past five or 10 years, technology infiltrated my whole life. It’s in my office; my kitchen; my car; my bedroom; it comes on holidays with me; very often, it’s in the fist of my five-year-old. There is no escaping it: it buzzes, vibrates and flashes like a demanding toddler until eventually I give in and attend to it.

And I’m not sure about what it gives me in return. Convenience, certainly – but at what price?

I’ve noticed that I find it harder to concentrate than I used to. I forget facts I’ve only just learned. I get bored and outraged more easily. Where once I read voraciously, mostly now I scan, skip and scroll. I know more people, but meet fewer in person. Even my thoughts seem shoutier, pithier, designed in a tweet-friendly format.

As Nicholas Carr wrote in The Shallows , his Pulitzer-nominated book on the way the internet has rewired our brains: “The computer screen bulldozes our doubts with its bounties and conveniences. It is so much our servant that it would seem churlish to notice that it is also our master.”

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