Adolescents are less adept at multitasking than adults, psychological study suggests

Multi-institutional study investigates effects of multitasking on social interactions

Adolescents are less adept at multitasking than adults when combining social interaction with non-social tasks, a new study has found.

The results suggest the natural pace and success of social interactions, such as everyday conversations, could be disrupted when people – and particularly adolescents – are simultaneously keeping track of extraneous information.

Examples of such extraneous information include:

  • Having a conversation with someone while trying to remember what that person knows/doesn’t know (e.g. friends you have in common or not)
  • Trying to remember your shopping list
  • Remembering you want to ask someone a particular question
  • Remembering you haven’t written homework given by the teacher down, while a friend next to you is talking to you

The novel study was carried out by researchers from Birkbeck, University College London (UCL), and the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda in the United States.

The team explored the effect of cognitive load on the ability of adults and adolescents to process social cues and take the perspective of another person or to carry out an equivalent non-social task. Cognitive load is increased when working memory – which allows us to maintain and manipulate information in a mental workspace – is loaded with more information.

The method

  • Thirty-three female adolescents (11-17 years old) and 28 female adults (22-30 years old) were studied while carrying out two tasks simultaneously; one non-social task and another task which could be social or non-social.
  • For example, in one version of the test participants were tasked with memorising three two-digit numbers (i.e. a high cognitive load, non-social task), while being directed by another person to move an object – a task designed to require the participant to adopt this person’s perspective (i.e. a social task).
  • These tasks were carried out in a number of iterations, such as examining the impact of lowering cognitive load, and removing the social aspect. These results were then explored in light of a battery of other tests, such as an intelligence test and an interpersonal reactivity index questionnaire, which includes questions assessing perspective-taking in everyday life, such as: “‘I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective”.

The results

  • The findings showed that participants in both age groups were less proficient at performing both the social and non-social task when they were under high cognitive load. However, compared with adults, the adolescent group showed a greater reduction in performance when having to keep track of several pieces of information while multitasking.
  • The study’s findings also indicate that taking another’s perspective is a cognitively taxing activity that can be disrupted when one is simultaneously keeping track of several pieces of non-social information.

Dr Iroise Dumontheil of Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences, and co-author of the study said the results suggest that attempting to keep track of just a few pieces of non-social information during a social situation can be impairing to both the social interaction, and the later recall of the non-social information.

She said: “The results are an interesting follow up on our previous research* showing that adolescents take another person’s perspective into account less often than adults (who themselves only take another person’s perspective into account 50-60% of the time).”

Further, she said, they indicate that multitasking situations, which some adults navigate effectively might be more difficult for some adolescents.

She said: “We believe this is an important topic of investigation, as within the typical social environment, we are regularly faced with situations that require multitasking while engaging in a social interaction.”

“In particular, these results might have implications for how adults who work with adolescents, such as teachers and mentors, structure activities with adolescents. For example, teachers may want to ensure they give adolescents time to note down any homework or instructions for an assignment before starting an in-class group work which requires social interactions.”

The researchers suggest that future studies in this area should include both female and male participants in order to examine any potential sex differences.

The study, titled “Multitasking during social interaction in adolescence and early adulthood” has been published in Royal Society Open Science - read the paper here.

Read Dr Dumontheil's blog on the study here

Find out more

* The previous study, Online usage of theory of mind continues to develop in late adolescence, is available to view here.