Media multitasking is associated with higher risk for obesity and increased responsiveness to rewarding food stimuli

  • Richard B. LopezEmail author
  • Todd F. Heatherton
  • Dylan D. Wagner


Obesity among children and adolescents has dramatically increased over the past two to three decades and is now a major public health issue. During this same period, youth exposure to media devices also became increasingly prevalent. Here, we present the novel hypothesis that media multitasking (MMT)—the simultaneous use of and switching between unrelated forms of digital media—is associated with an imbalance between regulatory processes and reward-related responses to appetitive food stimuli, resulting in a greater sensitivity to external food cues among high media multitaskers. This, in turn, may contribute to overeating and weight gain over time. To test this hypothesis, we conducted two studies examining research participants who grew up during the recent period of escalating multitasking and obesity—and among whom 37% are overweight or obese. In Study 1, participants’ propensity to engage in MMT behaviors was associated with a higher risk for obesity (as indicated by higher body mass index and body fat percentage). Next, in Study 2, a subset of participants from Study 1 were exposed to appetitive food cues while undergoing functional neuroimaging and then, using passive mobile sensing, the time participants spent in various food points-of-sale over an academic term was inferred from GPS coordinates of their mobile device. Study 2 revealed that MMT was associated with an altered pattern of brain activity in response to appetizing food cues, specifically an imbalance favoring reward-related activity in ventral striatum and orbitofrontal cortex—relative to recruitment of the frontoparietal control network. This relationship was further tested in a mediation model, whereby increased MMT, via a brain imbalance favoring reward over control, was associated with greater time spent in campus eateries. Taken together, findings from both studies suggest the possibility that media multitasking may be implicated in the recent obesity epidemic.


Media multitasking Obesity Self-control failure Cue reactivity Reward 


Author contributions

Hypothesis, study concepts, and designs by R.B.L., D.D.W., and T.F.H. Data acquisition and analysis was performed by R.B.L. R.B.L, T.F.H. and D.D.W. all contributed to the final version of the manuscript.


This study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, specifically the National Institute on Drug Abuse (grant number R01DA022582).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

Author Lopez declares that he has no conflict of interest. Author Heatherton declares that he has no conflict of interest. Author Wagner declares that he has no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Psychological SciencesRice UniversityHoustonUSA
  2. 2.Department of Psychological and Brain SciencesDartmouth CollegeHanoverUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyThe Ohio State UniversityColumbusUSA

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