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Media multitasking, attention, and distraction: a critical discussion


Students often multitask with technologies such as computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones during class. Unfortunately, numerous empirical studies firmly establish a significant drop in academic performance caused by this media multitasking. In this paper it is argued that cognitive studies may have clarified the negative consequences of this activity, yet they struggle to address the processes involved in it. A cognitive characterization of attention as a mental phenomenon neglects the interaction between bodies and technologies, and it is suggested that a postphenomenological understanding is necessary to account for the materiality of practice. Notions of embodied habits and technical mediation are introduced, and an example of a postphenomenological account of media multitasking is introduced. It is argued that this approach enables researchers to investigate media multitasking as it occurs in everyday educational practice.

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  1. One might question the aptness of e.g., testing “attention in the classroom” by making solitary psychology students watch a 60 min pre-recorded lecture titled Introduction to Ancient Greek History: Lecture 2 (Risko et al. 2013).

  2. To be so dumb that one cannot “chew gum and walk at the same time” is, in fact, a famous putdown delivered by President Lyndon B. Johnson to Republican politician (and later president) Gerald Ford.

  3. A third generation of cognitive scientists has since attempted to integrate notions of the active body under headings such as extended, enacted, and embodied cognition (e.g., Clark 1997; Noë 2004; Varela et al., 1991).

  4. Indeed, media multitasking studies often refer to driving studies (e.g., Bowman et al. 2010; Dietz and Henrich 2014).


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Correspondence to Jesper Aagaard.

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Aagaard, J. Media multitasking, attention, and distraction: a critical discussion. Phenom Cogn Sci 14, 885–896 (2015).

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  • Attention
  • Distraction
  • Educational technology
  • Media multitasking
  • Postphenomenology