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Faculty are often amazed at what seems to be the ability of our nursing students to multitask. However, an innovative study at Stanford University has determined that media multitasking leads to a decline in cognitive performance. A team headed by psychologist Eyal Ophir identified a group of 41 students as being either "heavy media multitaskers" (HMMs) or "light media multitaskers" (LMMs) based on how often students self-reported simultaneously using media including television, cell phones, computer games, and videos.


The researchers tested students in the 2 groups (HMM=19, LMM=22) to determine how well they could sort out relevant information from the environment, filter out irrelevant information from their memories, and switch between a variety of cognitive tasks. The HMMs did worse than the LMMs on all cognitive tests. Additionally, the HMMs were more easily distracted by irrelevant stimuli and had greater difficulty selecting information from memory relevant to the task at hand. In one cognitive filtering test, the LMMs took 323 milliseconds to discern the correct answer, while the HMMs required an average of 400 milliseconds.


As more and more people are simultaneously working on a computer, listening to music, surfing the Internet, texting, or talking on the phone the implications of the study become a bit disturbing. Having access to more information tools is not necessarily making people more efficient in their cognitive tasks. Equally disturbing is that almost all HMMs believed that they were actually quite good at multi-tasking. People who possess poor filtering abilities and have difficulty paying attention to tasks may be prone to multi-tasking. Anthony Wagner, a psychologist involved with the Stanford study, suspects that constantly moving back and forth among different media provides an instant gratification that reinforces multitasking exploratory behavior. Unfortunately, this gratification seems to occur along with difficulty focusing on a specific cognitive task.


Perhaps we need to assist our students in identifying just how truly inefficient their multi-tasking activities may be. Additionally, the cognitive deficits seen with media multi-tasking might translate into the clinical environment, especially for those HMMs who see their activities as efficient.


Source: Holden C. (25 August, 2009). Multitasking muddles the mind? ScienceNOW Daily News. Available at Accessed on September 8, 2009.


Submitted by: Robin Pattillo, PhD, RN, News Editor at