Twenty-somethings are constantly on their smart phones, doing 5 things at once! Seniors didn’t grow up with computers, so they probably aren’t very good at multitasking! Young people have short attention spans and are easily distracted!
When it comes to age and technology, there are many stereotypes and assumptions floating around. A common one is that because younger people are “digital natives” who have always lived with technology such as computers, they can easily integrate it into their lives, whereas older people are “digital immigrants,” who are less comfortable using it. On the other hand, digital natives may be so used to checking their phones or their tablets every few minutes that they may not be able to focus on a particular task for very long without switching to another. Recently, Drs. Lara Zwarun and Alice Hall of UMSL’s Communication Department had the opportunity to test some of these assumptions in an empirical research study. It was an exciting chance for them, because whereas normally, they conduct most of their research on their students, this time they had a chance to collect data on nearly 6000 people from 7 different countries. What’s more, the people were not just college students, and they ranged in age from 18 to over 65.
Another cool thing about the study is that it asked participants about what kinds of things they do in addition to and while they are taking an online survey—in other words, how they multitask. Rather than just relying on participants’ memories, the survey asked these question right after the subjects had completed an online survey, so people were able to answer based on behavior they had just engaged in, increasing the validity of their recollections.
It turns out that people of all ages multitask, although it is true that younger people do so more. Listening to music is a popular activity, as is receiving a signal from one’s phone indicating some sort of message (text, Tweet, etc.) has arrived. Whereas many multitasking activities increase how distracted people felt while engaging in them, more interacting with one’s phone actually made people feel less distracted, perhaps by making them feel more connected with their lives.
The older one is, the less distracted one reports being, but this turns out to be not such a simple pattern. As the amount of multitasking engaged in increases, distraction scores tend to increase for younger participants more than older ones, although at the heaviest levels of multitasking, younger participants’ distraction scores often fall below those of their older high-multitasking counterparts. It is overly simplistic to say that younger people can multitask with less effect on their concentration than older people. Rather, it is middle-aged people who felt the most distracted by their multitasking. In fact, the most stressed out multitaskers happen to be right around the age of the study’s two authors…read into that what you will!