Portable media devices are ubiquitous and their use has become a core component of many people’s daily experience, but to what effect? In this paper, the authors review research on the ways in which media use and multitasking relate to distraction, distractibility and impulsivity. They review recent research on the effects of media multitasking on driving, walking, work, and academic performance. The authors discuss earlier research concerning the nature of media’s impact on attention and review cognitive and neuropsychological findings on the effects of divided attention. Research provides clear evidence that mobile media use is distracting, with consequences for safety, efficiency and learning. Greater use of media is correlated with higher levels of trait impulsivity and distractibility, but the direction of causality has not been established. Individuals may become more skilled at media multitasking over time, but intervention is currently required to improve the safe and effective use of mobile media.
In 2006, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman described the modern era as “the age of distraction” because of the widespread use of the variety of media then available. Since that time there has been an explosion of mobile computing devices that allow and encourage us to stay connected and online wherever and whenever we like. By 2012, 88% of adults in the U.S. owned cell phones, and 53% of those were smartphones (Smith, 2012). The use of media devices has become a core part of many people’s daily experience. In a study on the everyday experiences of self-control and its failure, the impulse to use media was hardest for people to resist, more difficult than resisting unwanted urges for eating, alcohol, and sex (Hofmann, Baumeister, Förster, & Vohs, 2012).
In this paper, we examine how multitasking with media affects users' performance in different domains (e.g., driving, walking, work, and academic pursuits). We then review research that addresses the question of why media multitasking is related to distraction, distractibility and impulsivity. We examine historical research on media and distractibility and review cognitive and neuropsychological research on the effects of divided attention. Finally, we explore how high levels of media multitasking might alter our general responses to experience in ways that are marked by changes in distractibility and impulsivity.