Attention in the presence of multiple media devices

In our ever growing society of technology and digital-based behaviour, we are constantly looking towards our media devices for the solution. These devices can be a blessing, enabling us to efficiently research something, be guided via maps to a destination and most importantly, to communicate with our friends and help us in many innumerable other ways. The public however, is constantly overusing these technologies because they are now such an integral part of our lives, these digital technologies, and our reliance on them has created many distractions for modern life. Our increased media consumption and digital lifestyles has reduced the ability for consumers to focus for extended periods of time.distracted-texting300

A prime example is the education system, with many teachers noting that students lose focus in the presence of these devices, impacting their will to intellectually engage in the classroom. The idea of intelligence being relative to attention is something that challenged me to think much more critically about that idea. Is the presence of multiple media devices honestly so damaging to our attention that it affects our will to learn? So I set up a small test, to view the attention of participants in relation to identifying articulation mistakes made by myself reading out an original story.

 

I started off by choosing two participants, of the same age, and bringing them to my room, in which the media devices were set up. Reid, and Bill were the two subjects of research, both in their 2nd year of Commerce at UOW. I informed the participants that all I wanted them to do was to carefully listen to myself read an essay I had written, in the presence of other media devices (TV and mobile phone)- and raise their hand every time I incorrectly pronounced a word. I must also note that the TV was placed on mute to avoid confusion when articulating words. These particular words were identified before the study began. They however, did not know, that their attention movements would be continuously recorded throughout the test. The main aim of this test was less to see if they could recognise a majority of the articulation mistakes, but rather to identify how many times their attention drifted.

 

 

The results of this test were quite as I had expected. For the first one and a half minutes in both instances of the study, participants were engaged and routinely recognised articulation mistakes. Their attention at this point had not switched to either their phone or the TV. As I continued further and further into the paper, their concentration levels lapsed and so too did their levels of attention. The results show that Reid identified the articulation mistakes much more than Bill, which is not surprising considering Bill turned his attention to the TV and/or phone much more than Reid. A Microsoft study notes that due to multiple media devices being in our presence each day, our levels of encoding and decoding tasks have been heightened (Microsoft, 2015). Though in this case, despite being an informal task, the inability to recognise significant mispronunciations of words in the last 2 paragraphs by both participants suggested that one’s level of media distractions is closely related to one’s ability to effectively learn. Higher the level of distractions, lower the willingness to learn.

 

Clifford Nass, a co-author of ‘cognitive control in media multitaskers’, concluded that “heavy media multitaskers are distracted by the multiple streams of media they are consuming, or, alternatively, that those who infrequently multitask are more effective at volitionally allocating their attention in the face of distractions.” If we are to believe this conclusion, then it would be fair to suggest that both participants in the study, Reid and Bill, both have a high level of media devices in their presence each day.

 

This test gave a small indication as to the effects of media distractions on learning. It is something I would love to research further, with a bigger pool of participants, and a much more carefully thought out design to help address the main research question.

Learning with new technologies, and multiple devices, is somewhat of a double edged sword. They have an ability to stunt our attention to learn, though their vast power in relation to productively research is something that is widely recognised. Maybe what Microsoft said is true? Maybe we do have the capability to encode and decode information much more efficiently after being in the presence of multiple devices? Though I believe this is only true for certain situations, and after watching the two participants undergo the small test today, I have good reason to back my suggestion.

 

References:

  1. Ophir, E, Nass, C, Wagner, A, 2009, Cognitive control in media multitaskers, Stanford University, Available online at http://www.pnas.org/content/106/37/15583.full.pdf
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