Dean Eckles on people, technology & inference

Social and cultural costs of media multitasking

Today I’m attending the Media Multitasking workshop at Stanford. I’m going to just blog as I go, so these posts are going to perhaps be a bit rougher than usual.1

The workshop began with a short keynote from Patricia Greenfield, a psychology professor at UCLA, about the costs and benefits of media multitasking. Greenfield’s presentation struck me as representing as an essentially conservative and even alarmist perspective on media multitasking.

Exemplifying this perspective was Greenfield’s claim that media multitasking (by children) is disrupting family rituals and privileging peer interaction over interaction with family. Greenfield mixed in some examples of how having a personal mobile phone allows teens to interact with peers without their parents being in the loop (e.g., aware of who their children’s interaction partners are). These examples don’t strike me as particularly central to understanding media multitasking; instead, they highlight the pervasive alarmism about new media and remind me of how “helicopter parents'” extreme control of their children’s physical co-presence with others is also a change from “how things used to be”.

Face-to-face vs. mediated

The relationship of these worries about mobile phones and the allegedly decreasing control that parents have over their children’s social interaction to media multitasking is that mediated communication is being privileged over face-to-face interaction. Greenfield proposed that face-to-face interaction suffers from media use and media multi-tasking, and that this is worrisome because we have evolved for face-to-face interaction. She commented that face-to-face interaction enables empathy; there is an implicit contrast here with mediated interaction, but I’m not sure it is so obvious that mediated communication doesn’t enable empathy — including empathizing with targets that one would otherwise not encounter face-to-face and experiencing a persistent shared perspective with close, but distant, others (e.g., parents and college student children).

Family reunion

Greenfield cited a study of 30 homes in which children and a non-working parent only greeted the other parent returning home from work about one third of the time (Ochs et al., 2006), arguing — as I understood it — that this is symptomatic of a deprioritization of face-to-face interaction.

As another participant pointed out, this could also — if not in these particular cases, then likely in others — be a case of not feeling apart during the working day: that is, we can ask, are the children and non-working parents communicating with the parent during the workday? In fact, Ochs et al. (2006, pp. 403-4) presents an example of such a reunion (between husband and wife in this case) in which the participants have been in contact by mobile phone, and the conversation picks up where it left off (with the addition of some new information available by being present in the home).


I’m looking forward to the rest of the workshop. I think one clear theme of the workshop is going to be differing emphasis on costs and benefits of media multitasking of different types. I expect Greenfield’s “doom and gloom” will continue to be contrasted with other perspectives — some of which already came up.


Ochs, E., Graesch, A. P., Mittmann, A., Bradbury, T., & Repetti, R. (2006). Video ethnography and ethnoarchaeological tracking. The Work and Family Handbook: Multi-Disciplinary Perspective, Methods, and Approaches, 387–409.

  1. Which also means I’m multitasking, in some senses, through the whole conference. []

2 thoughts on “Social and cultural costs of media multitasking

  1. The memo for the workshop by Richard Beckwith (Intel) similarly identifies a “moral panic” about media multitasking. Beckwith argues that rather than simply responding to (or fanning the flames of) this panic, we should study how people are able to accomplish this multitasking and how we can design tools and interventions to teach valuable multitasking skills.

  2. Transition or change is always difficult. Younger generations pick up and master new technologies more swiftly than their seniors. My parents complained about answering machines, refusing to use them to leave messages. (They have long since jumped on board.) Other people’s parents complained about TV robbing families of interactive time.

    This is similar. It has been my experience (as parent and teacher) that parents and grandparents who embrace the use of cell phones find they have more interactions with their children and grandchildren, rather than less. The same holds true for email and social networking and whatever comes next.

    Certainly parents need to establish rules and monitor their children’s social interactions, but it all comes down to that delicate balance between too much control and not enough control on the part of the parent. We have all seen kids get into trouble by having too much freedom too soon, but we’ve also seen kids rebel (straight into trouble) when they had too little freedom.

    It all comes down to that basic parent-child relationship, with trust and caring established early and maintained through lots of caring interactions… and then being able to trust and let go at the right time. We can’t blame everything on “the media” or “technology”… we parents have to take responsibility for the relationships we create with our children. Blaming technology is merely abdicating that responsibility by playing the victim role.

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