The Rise in Media Multitasking and the Use of Multiple Devices

‘Media multitasking’ refers to the use of more than one kind of media – be it phone, computer, TV, or tablet – simultaneously. The most common instance is using a computer at the same time as watching TV. This type of multitasking is rising as more and more people buy multiple devices. A study by Zmags finds that this is changing the way people interact and shop online; the study describes one group as ‘connected consumers’, people who own laptops or desktops but who also own smartphones (43 percent) and tablets (16 percent). These people are enthusiastic about shopping online and use social media to interact with different brands and score the best deals. And shopping is not the only activity to be affected by the rise in multiple devices – basic entertainment activities are also being redefined by consumers across the world. What are the effects of this media multitasking, and how is it changing how people live and work?

Unsurprisingly, this trend to have multiple internet-connected devices that has grown in conjunction with the explosion of portable technology and a boom in tablets, many of which contain a vast number of entertainment options (noted in these BlackBerry PlayBook reviews, for instance). What is surprising, however, is that many of us are not aware of the extent to which we multitask, even while we’re doing it. One recent study by the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, for example found that subjects who were allowed to watch TV and use a laptop as they desired for half an hour on average though that they had switched attention only approximately 15 times. In actual fact, they did so 120 times.

In the light of such research, developers and marketers, therefore, need to re-evaluate how they think people consume media.  It is simply not the case that browsing on a tablet, watching TV, and sending a text message are considered or treated as separate activities by the majority of people. An obvious response to nature of this kind of media consumption is to try and make the experience match usage habits – to unify the various media experiences into a more cohesive whole.

Already there is a growing trend in this direction.  For example, during the first broadcast of the hit British TV show Misfits, characters in the show tweeted their thoughts and feelings about the events in the show as they took place.

In the world of phones and tablets, syncing data is becoming more and more commonplace, with apps like CompanionLink, Evernote, and Dropsync making the process quick and easy.  This recent BlackBerry PlayBook review show that this ability to sync data has been taken to the next level with Blackberry Bridge; not only can users sync their PlayBook with their smartphone, sharing information between the two, but the user can perform tasks usually associated with one on the other device, or use the devices in conjunction (the smartphone as a remote control for the PlayBook, for instance).

Naturally, this sudden and vast increase in mass consumption of multiple media sources simultaneously gives rise to the questions about what effect this will have on users in the long term; particularly when it comes to social developmentand attention span.

Opinion is conflicted.  Some emphasize the negative aspects of media multitasking – ‘isn’t media multitasking simply the inability to focus on the task at hand?’.  Others put a positive spin on it –‘media multitasking is surely just a manifestation of the ability to conduct several tasks at once’.

The central difficulty in answering questions of this sort is a lack of data.  The dramatic shift in the nature of media and the way we use it has only really taken place in the last decade or so.  This means the data for evaluating the long-term effects of media multitasking simply are not there at present.

Despite this, it looks as if this trend for media multitasking will only increase, as more people are predicted to purchase tablets and smartphones in the next few years. We will just have to wait and see what effects – whether they be positive or negative – this multitasking will provide.