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Self-regulating intervention curbs excessive media multitasking
Author: Corporate Communication / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie [Alec Basson]
Published: 11/02/2020

Are you one of those people who simultaneously watch TV, check the latest Twitter trends or Instagram feeds, or chat on WhatsApp? If yes, you are media multitasking which may sound impressive, but it does come at a cost.

“Because media multitasking can promote a scattered approach to task-performance and undermine our ability to concentrate and get things done, we need to find ways to self-regulate our use of different digital media technologies," says Dr Douglas Parry, a lecturer in the Department of Information Science and member of the Cognition and Technology Research Group at Stellenbosch University (SU). Parry developed a self-regulating media multitasking-based intervention as part of his recent doctorate in Socio-Informatics at SU and assessed its feasibility for students who were identified as frequent media multitaskers.

He says his study holds important implications not only for individuals seeking to regulate their own use of different media devices and reduce their media multitasking, but also for the management of interferences associated with media multitasking, especially among students who may revert to it when they perceive a lecture as boring or irrelevant.

“Success in the workplace, at university, and in different social spheres rests on our ability to filter out irrelevant distractions, resist desires to mind-wander and fight the pull of alluring social media to remain on-task."

To assess the feasibility of his intervention, Parry used pre- and post-assessments during which the participants performed a series of standard performance-based (game-like situations on a computer to isolate specific cognitive processes) and self-report evaluations (questionnaires) of working memory (temporary storing and managing of information), inhibitory control (ability to control one's behaviour, thoughts and attention to override external attractions or internal desires and do what is more appropriate), cognitive flexibility (the ability to shift between different tasks or thoughts), and attention control (the ability to concentrate). They also utilised a smartphone usage tracking application to help them regulate their own use of media (e.g. cellphones, laptops, social networking services, instant messaging tools, etc) in relation to a specified target (a maximum of 90 minutes per day). Participants also shared reports generated by the application which indicated their total hourly device usage and number of pick-ups per day. Following the intervention, some of the participants were interviewed about their experiences.

Parry says the findings of his study indicated changes in the behaviour of participants which led to more instances in which they were inhibiting media distractions and concentrating on academic tasks. These changes enabled the participants to spend more time on performing a single task and to focus not only on being successful in their academic work but also in their personal and social lives.

“The intervention enabled behavioural changes which brought about more instances of single-tasking through self-regulation strategies such as setting aside specific periods of time for using a phone, replying to incoming messages in batches, and putting the phone out of sight and reach when in lectures or working.

“Self-regulation of media multitasking brought about a greater awareness of media use patterns, which enabled participants to use their devices more intentionally, and not act so reflexively. Regulating media use and reducing media multitasking can lead to more time spent focusing on work, and living in the moment rather than thinking about what's happening online."

Parry says the participants were positive about the intervention and were quite surprised and shocked by how much they were actually using and interrupting themselves with their devices.

“This awareness drove the self-regulation and aided them in developing strategies to take control of their behaviour. This also helped them to work towards achieving their academic goals, structure their time, focus in class and procrastinate less."

Parry says a self-regulation based intervention, supported by a mobile usage-tracking application, can be easily implemented by students.

He adds that without a strategy and self-motivated behavioural changes students will in all likelihood struggle to regulate their media multitasking in these situations and, frequently, performance suffers.

Parry says we need to develop a better understanding of our own behaviour, our personal goals, and work to align our media use with these goals because only then will we be able to put in place procedures (e.g. time blocks, do-not-disturb modes, etc) to help us regulate our own behaviour.


Dr Douglas Parry

Cognition and Technology Research Group (CTRG)

Department of Information Science

Stellenbosch University



Martin Viljoen

Manager: Corporate Communication

Stellenbosch University

Tel: 021 808 4921