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A multi-tasking moral panic

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:32 UK time, Thursday, 19 August 2010

The news about our multi-tasking media lives has been met with a mixture of shock, indifference - and just a hint of moral panic.

Woman on bed with phone, laptop and televisionAccording to Ofcom, we spend nearly half our waking lives watching telly, texting, surfing the web, and generally using every form of media and communications technology.

That's the headline from the media regulator's annual chunky report on the communications market. And the reactions to the research have been interesting. Some - like me - were not at all surprised by the sheer volume. Never mind half, so far today I've spent just about all my waking hours online, listening to the radio, or talking on the telephone, even while eating breakfast.

Others said this picture of multi-tasking media habits was actually old hat - one correspondent tells me a study 20 years ago showed most magazines were read while watching television.

As ever with anything about the way we use the media and technology, there has been a hint of disapproval, even panic from some commentators. Is it really healthy, they ask, for us to be hopping from one thing to another without properly concentrating? Shouldn't we spend more time communicating with our friends and family? Is Google, as one writer put it recently, making us stupid?

Before we get too worried, a few points that might reassure you. The study shows that the generation which is leading this revolution is actually devoting less time to these activities than the rest of us. 16-to-24-year-olds spend an average of six hours and 35 minutes a day on media and communications, as opposed to the average seven hours and five minutes.

But it is they of course who are the most adept at multi-tasking, so they're actually squeezing more activity into that time - they're more efficient than the rest of us.

Ah, but surely all they're doing is mucking about on Facebook (the study does show that the social network occupies an extraordinary amount of our time online) when they could be doing something more useful with their lives?

Hold on a minute - I seem to remember that when I was a young person a very long time ago, there was a moral panic about teenagers doing nothing more than watch television. It was rotting our brains, we had lost the art of communication.

It's the modern teenager's obsession with their computers and mobile phones which worries parents today - but if you look at what they're doing, much of it involves communication and creativity, not something you could say about the passive activity of television viewing. Whether it is uploading videos to YouTube, contributing to a gamers' forum or simply sharing a joke on Facebook, today's teenage media activities require far more engagement than slumping in front of Dallas or Dynasty.

Still, it will be a comfort to some that the Ofcom study shows that old-fashioned television remains by far our favourite media pastime, despite predictions that it would be killed off in the new media revolution. What's more, television is the activity which appears to demand most concentration - we are less likely to be doing something else at the same time when we are watching a compelling piece of TV.

As a neuroscientist told the Today programme this morning, the Greeks worried about the pernicious impact of literature, while in the 1930s it was the cinema that was going to rot young minds. It's natural that we should ask searching questions about the effect of new technology on our society. But perhaps we all need to calm down - and learn to love our multi-tasking media world.

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  • Comment number 1.

    Reports like this always state the obvious, at least to me and many people I know. If you are one of the many that seem surprised that people like to engage in multiple digital mediums at the same then you are a digital has been.

    NB - While writing this I also checked Twitter, responded to an email, all while listening to DAB radio through the internet...and I'm at work....

  • Comment number 2.

    Please tell my parents what you said about the productive reasons to be on the internet. They seem to think that I do nothing whilst on the internet when in actual fact I read more news, learn more and communicate more because of it. Compared to how they spend their evenings watching soaps and football the internet is very informative.

  • Comment number 3.

    I have to agree with the way we multi-task these days. I recently switched to playing football manager in windowed mode so that I could chat to friends on Facebook and MSN, since only a few of my friends have Steam for in-game chat. At the same time I may be following the real football via BBC Sport and texting other people who aren't online, all the while having either Spotify or iTunes playing music. As computers become more powerful (multi-core processors and lots of RAM really helps here) multi tasking is no longer going to be a problem for devices, but simply limited by how much someone can spread their focus across a number of tasks. The only times I can truly say that I am not multi tasking is when I am asleep, playing a PC game that requires my complete attention (any FPS/action type game really) or if I am watching something on the telly and left my phone in my bedroom. I do love the comment about how us young people (I fall slap bang in the middle of the 16-24 age bracket) actually consume media for the least number of hours and yet consume the greatest volume. Clearly we have multi tasking down to a fine art, and actually contribute things, as opposed to pure consumption. Remember, if you are playing a game online, then you joining in adds to other players' enjoyment of said game. Would Modern Warfare be anywhere near as good without the multiplayer?

  • Comment number 4.

    As humans we are not designed to lead such sedentary lifestyles. However, I am concerned that multi tasking is yet again set in a positive light. Multi taksers do not fully concentrate on what they are doing and often start jobs which they leave for someone else to finish off. This report does not really point towards a society with a positive and focussed work ethos. After all we would want the full attention of a surgeon who was operating on us. This report points to the the formation of bad habits which in time to come will be very difficult to eradicate.

  • Comment number 5.

    My son communicates more than I could as his age, confidence to communicate more widely can only be a positive thing.

    I also feel that people are more likely to question sorces of information rather than rely on the one way system of the media, my parents do have those old fashioned shallow opinions whereas I take a more open view.

    However, I was going to bookmark this article straight to Facebook to share but there isn't the usual link! A small hiccup in communication I was just praising perhaps?

  • Comment number 6.

    I see multitasking as great step forward, I am often known to have my desktop Pc and laptop running at the same time so that I can run a program on one machine while continuing previous work on another. while this is going on I will probably have my game console on so that I can talk to multiple friends to discuss work or other programs that I have running on my pc's. finally I will have my smart phone on my person as it provides easy access to all my email accounts, facebook, twitter and a number of other useful things, my smart phone also allows me to control my home computers when I'm on the move so that I can set a program running while I am out so that it can be completed by the time I arrive home, if that isn't an increase in productivity I don't know what is. I don't see how any hard can come from multitasking it increases my productivity by at least 50% is not more.

  • Comment number 7.

    I don't believe the report is surprising, but it is slightly concerning. Most of these media are essentially a way of doing nothing. TV has long been an excuse to waste your life, and now you can text, use the internet or play computer games as well, instead of meeting people, communicating face to face, being active in some way or actually learning and playing an instrument instead of just playing "Guitar Hero".
    You may be able to do several things at once, but several times nothing is still nothing. Society benefits from this phenomenon not one jot!

  • Comment number 8.


    Your assertion that a person who multitasks doesn't get much exercise is an absurd non-sequitur and stating that multitasking individuals leave tasks unfinished is preposterous.

    I believe this report points very strongly toward a society with an indomitable work ethic. People are getting more done, pushing not just technology but societal changes at ever-increasing rates. Consumption of news while performing surgery may be inappropriate, but in most other activities it allows for more rounded and well-informed opinions, efficient working methods, more collaboration and greater productivity.

    These are not bad habits and should be embraced rather than feared.

  • Comment number 9.

    Why do so many people assume that when you multi-task that everything you're doing is useless? When I was at uni (not all that long ago), I could listen to music, research scientific articles online, write up my reports and chat to my class mates via MSN messenger or skype (these were the days before Fb) on the matter. How was any of that useless?

    Stop projecting your own fears and insecurities on others; just because people look like they're not doing much, doesn't necessarily mean that's the case. Technology has freed us to do what we want, when we want. Even if that means doing it all at the same time.

  • Comment number 10.

    #7 Ivor_Brown-Bottomley

    "Most of these media are essentially a way of doing nothing."

    I agree, but it's now the case that one can be sure others are also using/wasting their time in exactly the same way. "Misery loves company" &c.

    Maybe multitasking is a way of "cheating on" one set of online contacts (in other words not worth full attention), and is itself merely a manifestation of an innate superiority complex?

  • Comment number 11.

    What something looks like is not always what it is: I spend a lot of my work time thinking: it's vital to what I do. But it looks like I'm doing nothing, or even worse, sleeping! Thankfully, I have employers who understand this, and leave me alone. But someone from another department who doesn't understand my job will always mutter something about "laziness", while they're on their way to chat round the water cooler!

    But I will show this to my wife, who seems to think that the amount of time I spend on my computer is "playing", as opposed to "working".

    However, in regard to multi-tasking, maybe it's just me, but I like to give my full attention to a task: I don't have music on when I work, and prefer the less noise the better: it aids my thinking, gives no distractions. Similarly, when I watch a film, I like to immerse myself in it, and so don't read a magazine or do anything else (except maybe eat) at the same time, unlike my wife, who seems to enjoy reading a magazine, and texting friends while the film is on. However, you can guarantee that 20 minutes into the film, she's asking me what's going on/who's that guy etc!

  • Comment number 12.

    It does make me laugh when i read these reports, that is so obvious.
    We all multi task anyway, and now there is so many convenienent ways to communicate yet it is no quicker really, as have to now answer ten times as many people, at the same time.!

  • Comment number 13.

    Ralph - - you are certainly not multi tasking - not even working! so you admit to stealing from your employer - NO such thing as multi-tasking- a con by women to put down men! Answering the phone while driving is a dangerous activity! Texting while talking to someone is just rude. Spelling correctly has disappeared- and allowing the phone to rule you is just stupid. Despite all the latest communications technology people are failing to communicate with each other - ie NOT listening. Switch it off - save electricity, money and possibly your relationships!

  • Comment number 14.

    so you admit to stealing from your employer

    So if I get and email on my blackberry, read it, log in to work and fix a problem in the evening, at the weekend, or on a day off, is my employer stealing from me?

    Your attitude would suit a Victorian factory owner, but not modern information economy work.

  • Comment number 15.

    We've multitasked since the dawn of time, with cavemen on the lookout for predators whilst gathering food, and women preparing food and home whilst keeping an eye on the children. People assume that multitasking is an exclusively device based topic, simply because the term is well used in the computing world.

  • Comment number 16.

    Rory Cellan-Jones.

    "I seem to remember that when I was a young person a very long time ago, there was a moral panic about teenagers doing nothing more than watch television. It was rotting our brains, we had lost the art of communication."

    and look at the world we live in today, I'd say your (and my) parents were right!!

    a good example perhaps is the BBC's current reporting from Pakistan, we see Orla Guerin standing ghoulishly self-satisfied among the ruins of other peoples lives, contributing -- what??

  • Comment number 17.

    I think when people "multi-task" at work that often translates to a lack of concentration on the task they should be doing and so reflects poorly on the individual. When people "multi-task" while consuming media that suggests the first media source they started consuming wasn't interesting and immersive enough to hold their attention. That reflects poorly on the people creating the media!

    Case in point: A great TV show can hold my complete attention for at-least half an hour. The average contemporary BBC sitcom has me doing something else within 3 minutes.

  • Comment number 18.


    I find the comment about saving relationsips amusing, if it wasn't for the internet and a mobile phone i wouldnt have a relationship! I was in a long distance relationship for 5 years and i would only see her weekends but we would text everyday, of course its no replacement for real life interation but its a damn sight better than nothing...i moved to bath in january to live with said girlfriend and i am still here now...i wouldnt be here if it wasnt for modern technology...

    While i wouldnt nessecery disagree with your your point, i think my story proves that it doesn't apply to evrybody...

  • Comment number 19.

    Wow...i had so many spelling mistakes and grammatical errors in that message there maybe i proved something else entirely, that modern day technology is making me stupid!

  • Comment number 20.

    There exist inescapable truths. Here's two :

    Concentrate 100% on something and you will do it to the absolute best of your ability.

    Concentrate less the 100% on something and you will not do it to the best of your ability.

    Multi-tasking is interesting, because there are so many interesting distractions. How to choose? So we just don't choose at all. But the downside of not choosing, is that in making no choices we never give 100% to any one thing. So we live in mediocrity. Will the internet revolution be remembered as the age of mediocrity? Possibly.

    Certainly it seems to me, as a weary observer, that mediocrity is so much less interesting than conviction and conviction only presents itself when you concentrate, 100%, on whatever it is that has sparked your interest.


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