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How Interactive Media Can Scramble Your Brain

New research documents the negative consequences of media multitasking.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Many of us have suspected that the new interactive media—smartphones and the like—adversely affect the ways in which people think and behave. Personally, I find nothing quite so annoying as people who multitask on their devices while I am trying to have a face-to-face conversation with them. Now, research by Clifford Nass, the Thomas M. Storke Professor at Stanford University, proves us right. Nass, who studies the social and psychological aspects of human–media interaction and directs the Communication between Humans and Interactive Media (CHIMe) Lab, lends scientific weight to the suspicions of modern Luddites like me. He also points to more serious consequences for human development and workplace productivity than even the most pessimistic of us feared.


Nass found that the average college student accesses three media sources simultaneously, and 25 percent actually use four or more. The research clearly indicates that such media multitasking impedes the ability to focus on relevant information, or more simply, to pay attention. For example, if you watch a television show running a “headline tracker” across the bottom of the screen, you are less likely to retain information from either the main program or the crawl.

Nass cites studies showing that those who engage in multitasking have difficulties identifying what information is important and are unable to ignore irrelevant information. The sad irony is that multitaskers are actually less able to multitask than the rest of us because, as Nass explains, they can’t help but think about what they aren’t doing! He argues that this inability to process information effectively makes managers less thoughtful and therefore more inclined to exercise poor judgment. For example, studies show that multitaskers are less able to write coherently than people who focus on one thing at a time. That comes as no surprise to professors who have attempted to give essay exams to students who spend all semester in class ostensibly “listening” and “discussing,” while at the same time texting friends, listening to music, playing online poker, and doing an Internet search to find the answer to the question the prof just asked.

But it gets worse: Multitaskers are not only paying no attention to their profs (or to their bosses, co-workers, and customers in the room with them), they have problems with social interactions in general. In terms of developing what Daniel Goleman calls “emotional intelligence,” new media addicts are poor at reading other people. In short, they tend to be socially and emotionally immature. They prefer to retreat to the comfort of texting rather than deal with potential emotional connection (and conflict) with those in the same room.

Nass points out that corporate policies encouraging media multitasking—those that require people to respond to all emails in a matter of minutes, keep team members’ chat windows open, and use personal cell phones for work purposes—actually impair the ability of employees to do their jobs and, in particular, to work effectively in teams. He concludes that such corporate policies are “re-wiring the brains” of employees and suggests that, at a minimum, managers should insist laptops be turned off during live meetings.

It’s not a bad idea. For five years, I tried convincing my MBA students that if they “would turn off and tune in” to our live discussions, they would learn more and have better relationships with classmates. But I got nowhere, ultimately concluding that my importuning was mere noise in an overwhelmingly digital world filled with thousands of voices more influential (and fun) than mine. And it didn’t help that the chairman of my department didn’t have a single book on the shelves in his office, and the only things on his desk were a computer, iPad, and smartphone.

Interestingly, Nass’s own university sits on the edge of Silicon Valley—where it is the prime nurturing ground for those responsible for the technological advances he warns against. And those Stanford alums seem unworried by any negative reactions to the new technologies they turn out by the week. Indeed, most of them seem to believe it’s everyone else’s duty to adjust to the new world they are creating. To the engineering mind, the new is always better than the old, and those who question the human consequences of emerging technologies are no better than flat-earthers. I’d suggest, instead, that the new is objectively different than the old, but judgments as to which is better require broader forms of analysis than the narrow ways in which engineers (and Silicon Valley VCs) assess technology.

So if we can’t count on those making the new machines to consider their potential human costs before selling them to us, and if we don’t want government to regulate emerging technologies, how are we to prevent potential social and psychological harm in an era when the average nine-year-old now owns a cell phone? As parents, educators, and employers, we need to pay serious attention to what Nass and other researchers are saying, and insist that our kids, students, and employees turn their devices off. By disconnecting from their phones and iPads, they can reconnect to the people in the room. That’s what I should have done with my MBA students.

James O'Toole

James O’Toole is director of the Neely Center for Ethical Leadership at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.

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