It only takes opening Twitter during a live broadcast. Whether it’s “The Bachelorette,” the Oscars, or the Presidential election debates, social media becomes a whole alternate universe filled with discussions, commentary, and memes about what’s on television right now. It’s called live-tweeting, and it’s immersive. Once you start reading and chatting with phone in hand, it can be hard to stop.
According to a new University of Connecticut study, live-tweeting might be a little too immersive. More than half of 18- to 24-year-olds engage in social media for discussion while they watch television, and new research shows they’re probably having less fun than they would without their second screens.
Scientists have long known that “media multitasking” is bad for cognition. In 2015, two researchers from Indiana University analyzed studies since 1990 that focused on media multitasking, which they defined as “doing two tasks simultaneously, one of which involves media use.” They and other researchers determined that when people multitask with multiple screens, they don’t concentrate on either one. Instead, they split their attention between those media, leaving them distracted and unable to focus. High school teachers have always known this instinctively: Texting in class means less learning.
But before the University of Connecticut study, no one had really studied whether media multitasking impacted enjoyment of media content. It seemed important to figure out. If we know media multitasking is bad for cognition, why do so many people still do it? Do we just not want to feel left out? Or are we actually having fun?
For this study, which was published in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media in June, Dr. Suji Park and other scientists relied heavily on a concept called transportation theory. Transportation has been defined as “a distinct mental process, an integrative melding of attention, imagery, and feelings.” It’s that feeling you get when you read a good book, watch a particularly scary show, or work on a fascinating project and feel like time flies away. You’re immersed in an activity so completely that you don’t realize other things are happening around you. This is what Dr. Park theorized made watching TV fun. People who are transported experience greater levels of emotion and investment. She wondered if people would feel that same emotion and investment while they live-tweeted.
Dr. Park and the other researchers invited groups of 5-8 students to watch an episode of “Friends” together in a room. The control groups simply watched the show, while the experimental group used Twitter to live-tweet with other viewers while they watched. After, participants completed a survey about their engagement and enjoyment in the episode.
The results are bad news for folks who live-tweet while watching TV. Despite the fact that all of their tweets were about the show, participants who tweeted experienced lower transportation, fewer positive and social emotions, and lower levels of enjoyment than those who simply watched the show without Twitter. Researchers do think, however, that people who perceive advantages to live-tweeting — like connecting with others or just staving off boredom — could experience more enjoyment. They suggest performing future studies that get closer to mimicking everyday life rather than using a lab setting to delve deeper into this question.
This study is just one more reminder that humans weren’t created to multitask. Research has long shown that there’s only a tiny percentage of people who can truly multitask. Those of us who aren’t these so-called “supertaskers” seriously limit our ability to complete tasks safely and well every time we try to do more than one thing at once. And once you start doing something else, your brain takes a long time to get back on track. For example, a 2007 study showed that when you take 10 minutes to write an email in the middle of a computer task, you actually fall 20-25 minutes behind.
The “Friends” study supported the idea that multitasking is impossible. Dr. Park and the other researchers suggested that those who expressed enjoyment after watching TV and live-tweeting were really taking breaks from watching TV and focused solely on Twitter. It wasn’t the TV show they were responding positively to. It was Twitter.
So why even try to multitask if it’s less effective and less enjoyable? The next time you sit down to watch a favorite show, try putting your phone away. Let the show transport you, and you may find that you like it even better than you did before.
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