For about 15% of students, media multitasking may boost efficiency

Focus on teens finds some people perform better when distracted

Research conducted by two Oregon high school students casts doubt on the theory that multitasking is detrimental to completing cognitive tasks, finding that working with "distractions" boosted performance for a small subset of teenagers, the Wall Street Journal's Sumathi Reddy reports.

Alexandra Ulmer and Sarayu Caulfield conducted a two-year study of 400 teenagers to determine the effects that distractions had on cognitive performance. They recently won second place at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, and they presented their findings at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics this past weekend.

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Participants in the study took a standardized test to determine whether they were a high, medium, or low media multitasker. They then performed a series of tasks while either being distracted—via emails, interruptions, and music—or undisturbed.

The researchers found that distractions decreased performance for most participants.

But for approximately 15% of study participants, it appeared to improve performance.  These participants tended to rate themselves as high media multitaskers.

In explaining the results, Ulmer hypothesized that "adolescents and digital natives have adapted" to a hyper-stimulating media environment "to cope with" more stimuli.

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Most research on multitasking to date has looked at college-aged research participants or the general population and found that multitasking consistently decreases performance.

However, a 2010 study conducted at the University of Utah found that there may be a small subset of the population—around 2.5%—that thrives in distracting environments (Reddy, Wall Street Journal, 10/13). 

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