Understanding the impact of technology multitasking on the developing brain

Dr Natasha Matthews (UQ), Professor Jason Mattingley (UQ) and Associate Professor Paul Dux (UQ) in collaboration with Questacon: The National Science and Technology Centre

It is increasingly common for children to spend considerable time using technology, whether it be watching TV, playing computer games, or using a laptop. In fact, according to one major US study, the amount of time children spend using technology has increased steeply over the last decade to an average of 10 hrs and 45 mins per day1 (a 44% increase). Importantly, a large proportion of that time (up to 29%) is spent technology-multitasking; that is, using two or more forms of technology at the same time. However, it remains unknown how this pattern of technology use may be shaping the developing brains of children. During childhood and adolescence, areas of the brain that control our ability to think flexibly are undergoing rapid development. The development of cognitive flexibility is crucial to learning as it allows us to adapt to new environments and select and respond to new information. We currently do not know whether media-multitasking during this developmental window is helping or hindering children’s ability to think flexibly and manage the demands of responding to different sources of information simultaneously.

In 2016, researchers from UQ worked with SLRC partner Questacon on a large-scale public science project, which involved the development of an interactive multitasking exhibit. The exhibit was designed to both educate the public about multitasking generally, and to collect responses from children and adults that would allow us to investigate the relationship between everyday technology use and cognitive flexibility. We were interested to know whether the number of hours spent multitasking with technologies was associated with one’s ability to perform two challenging cognitive tasks at once.

Over 1800 people ranging in age from 7 to 84 years took part in the project. They answered questions about their everyday technology multitasking, and performed a tablet-based multitasking game, which provided an objective measure of their cognitive flexibility. At the end of the game participants were given feedback about their performance, and some general information about multitasking.

The researchers found that cognitive flexibility developed over the life-span. Children under 10 made the most errors on the multitasking game. Performance than gradually improved with age over the teens and 20s before reaching a peak in the early 30s, and declining for older participants. Interestingly, for children, increased everyday use of technology was associated with increased cognitive flexibility. Future research by the SLRC will further explore the impact that these changes have on learning in children.

1Rideout, V. J., Foehr, U. G., & Roberts, D. F. (2010). Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8 –18 year olds. Retrieved from Kaiser Family Foundation website: http://www.kff.org/entmedia/mh012010pkg.cfm