Media multitasking could have negative effects on the social and emotional development of pre-teen girls, according to a study conducted by Stanford University researchers published in Developmental Psychology, a peer-reviewed journal issued by the American Psychology Association. However, researchers say that face-to-face interactions can reverse the more troubling outcomes.
The study was based on surveys of 3,461 girls between the ages of 8 and 12. The surveys were advertised in Discovery Girls magazine and were composed of 80 questions that covered topics relating to the girls’ media consumption, as well as their social and emotional well being. According to the researchers, headed by education professor Roy Pea and Clifford Nass, a professor of communication, the results showed a correlation between multitasking for many hours in front of a screen and negative experiences, such as feeling less social success, not feeling “normal,” lacking sleep, and having more friends whom parents perceive as “bad influences”.
However; the study was unable to confirm a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the two. It is possible, for example, that those teens who are shy or socially awkward might turn to media more frequently than an outgoing, confident teen, who might ultimately be more comfortable in face-to-face exchanges.
As an antidote, Nass told the Stanford Report that parents reconnect with the age-old admonishment: “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” He also said that kids should spend more time actively looking and listening to the people they are with, instead of being buried in front of their smart phones – advice easier said than done considering that, according to a 2010 study conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 75 percent of kids ages 12 to 17 are using cell phones, up from 45 percent in 2004. The girls in the study spent, on average, seven hours per day on media, a figure that included reading as well as screen time. The average amount of time spent in face-to-face social settings was two hours, excluding classroom time.
The extent of media in youth’s lives that Nass and his fellow researchers documented has been supported for years. A 2006 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation “Media Multitasking Among American Youth: Prevalence, Predictors, and Pairings,” (pdf) found that 26 percent of teens were media multitasking, up from 16 percent in 1999. National Public Radio reported on multitasking teens in 2008, citing research being done at the University of Michigan. The story says avoiding multitasking involves saying no to distractions—essentially being in control of your impulses – an ability that is not fully developed in teenagers’ brains.
According to Nass, face-to-face interactions are invaluable in developing the ability to recognize the subtle social cues necessary to form successful relationships later in life. “When we media multitask, we’re not really paying attention to the people around us and we get in a habit of not paying attention, and thus when I’m talking with you, I may be hearing the words but I’m missing all the rich, critical, juicy stuff at the heart of emotional and social life,” Nass told the Stanford Report. His theory was corroborated by study results, which showed that kids who communicated face-to-face very frequently showed much better social and emotional development, despite their media usage.
Other academics, such as Lyn Mikel Brown, an education professor at Colby College, suggest we hold off the panic button until more definitive conclusions can be reached. The study had several weaknesses that might challenge the results, as the authors readily agree.
Mikel Brown said that the study did expose a need for families to step in and attempt to moderate their child’s media usage. “The clear message is also how important it is for parents to create opportunities for girls to unplug, to live a balanced life, and increase quality face-to-face time with the people important to them,” she said in an interview with the New York Times.
In an age of “always-on media,” there is no way for parents or children to self-regulate the amount of time they spend media multitasking. It appears that the timeless suggestion of “everything in moderation” may be the truest form of guidance.