By Haiting Hu

Dr. James Cummings is Assistant Professor in the Division of Emerging Media Studies and previously served as co-director of the Communication Research Center at Boston University. His research investigates human-computer interaction, technical affordances and the cognitive and emotional processing and effect of media use. This week, we invited Dr. James Cummings to talk about his research on multitasking on a single device.

Q. Could you please tell us a little about your research about multitasking on a single device? How does it apply to mobile communication or mobile use in general?

A. Multitasking is an inherently cognitive process. Cognitive psychologists separately study two distinct forms of multitasking: task-switching (serially switching from one task to another) and dual-tasking (simultaneously engaging in multiple tasks). For years, the vast majority of research on “media multitasking” tended to emphasize the former, focusing on the frequency and effects of people concurrently using multiple media devices. In contrast, my research on media multitasking has looked at the nature of users serially switching  between different tasks on a single media device. This experience is increasingly characteristic of our modern digital media experiences, in which wide varieties of activities and content types (work, entertainment, news, games, social media, chat, fitness and personal tracking, etc.) are centralized and readily accessible on just one device. Obviously, we see this happening on laptops and other personal computers, but, more and more it is our mobile smartphones that serve as the platforms on which users navigate through these threads of varied media.

Q. What is the most prominent finding from this research?

A. That modern media experiences are astoundingly fragmented. One finding that always alarms people is the rapidity of switches between different content on a single device. Across multiple studies and different types of people, we have found that, on average, users switch between different content every 11-19 seconds. Notably, some types of media are “stickier” than others, with video content unsurprisingly eliciting longer exposure times before users switch away. We have found that even some of the most cognitively demanding tasks – those that traditionally are expected to require extended focus – are engaged in relatively small chunks of time. For instance, users spend an average of 51 seconds writing a class paper or other similar writing composition before switching away to other content (sometimes relevant to the writing task, sometimes not). Within these windows, users complete approximately 10 words’ worth of writing (in terms of the total number of words added, deleted, or edited). That is to say, by virtue of the centralization of contents on a single device, even some of the most thoughtful and traditionally “focused” activities are completed in a piecemeal fashion with frequent self-interruptions.

Q. How will this research contribute to future research and studies? 

A. As phones and computers permit rapid switching between fragments of varied content, our modern media experiences are incredibly idiosyncratic. Individuals are threading together their own unique sequences, in which short segments of media that vary in semantic meaning, emotional tone, duration, and level of interactivity are juxtaposed. The unique threads can be computationally sequenced to give new insights into the nature and diversity of modern media use and eventually serve as novel testbeds for corroborating and extending classic theoretical approaches in media psychology, such as excitation transfer or framing effects on information processing. This is exactly what colleagues and I are working on as part of the Screenomics Lab at Stanford University.

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