Capacity Limits of Working Memory: The Impact of Multitasking on Cognitive Control and Emotion Recognition in the Adolescent Mind

Saturday, October 11, 2014
Marina Ballroom Salon E (San Diego Marriott Marquis )
Sarayu Caulfield and Alexandra Ulmer, Oregon Episcopal School, Portland, OR


Media multitasking is increasingly prevalent in our society, especially among the young. Processing multiple streams of information simultaneously, however, is cognitively challenging, thereby potentially causing reduced effectiveness in the performance of overlapping tasks. This study examines the effects of age, gender, and chronic and active multitasking on the ability to a) process information and b) recognize emotions.


The study consisted of 196 females and 207 males, ages ranging from 10 to 19 years old. The participants were randomly assigned to one of two rooms (see above), with an equal number of males and females in each. In both rooms, students were asked to anonymously complete questions from a standardized media questionnaire as well as the standardized Stanford Multitasking Media Index (Nass, n.d.), providing demographic information as well as their daily media habits.

After, participants completed tests to assess the their ability to juggle tasks and focus (AX-CPT), and a test to assess emotion recognition (DANVA2). In the non-multitasking room, the tests were completed sequentially and in the multitasking room the tasks were completed simultaneously with auditory, visual, and cognitive tasks (responding to emails and counting songs).


Participants identified as High Media Multitaskers (HMM) performed significantly better than Low Media Multitaskers (LMM) across all measures of multitasking. The HMM performed significantly better on both the low distraction test (K2) and the high distraction test (K6) (p = 0.025 and p = 0.009) and on the task switch test (p = 0.05 and p = 0.06).

The LMM did better in the non-multitasking room, and the HMM did better in the multitasking room (see Figure above). In other words, the LMM performed better when there was less distraction and the HMM performed better when there was more distraction. There was no apparent effect of media multitasking on emotion recognition abilities.


The results from this study suggest that participants who chronically use multiple media develop a better capacity for processing multiple streams of information than those who less frequently consume multiple media. The opposite is also true: those with little use of multiple media perform best when focused on single tasks. The behavior of the participant's media use is reflected in the performance of their working memory and cognitive control.

These findings have significant implications for students in the school setting. Unlike previous studies and counterintuitive to what most believe, this study suggests that the adolescent generation ("digital natives") have a more adapted working memory to media multitasking than do older generations ("digital immigrants") and can perform effectively in the presence of multiple media streams. This could have a significant impact on teaching styles and curriculum with the newfound presence of media in schools.