In this modern era of technology, a person surfing the web while watching TV and talking on the phone may seem more than normal. However, what these multitaskers think is just a practical and efficient use of their time may actually mean something deeper and more sinister, a new study suggests.
Researchers from Michigan State University have for the first time linked using multiple forms of media at the same time to symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Lead researcher Mark Becker said that he was stunned to find such a strong association between media multitasking and mental health problems. However, he noted that the cause of the association remains unclear.
"We don't know whether the media multitasking is causing symptoms of depression and social anxiety, or if it's that people who are depressed and anxious are turning to media multitasking as a form of distraction from their problems," Becker, an assistant professor of psychology at MSU, said in a statement.
Researchers said that while overall media use among young Americans has increased 20 percent in the past decade, the amount of time spent multitasking with media has increased 120 percent during that period.
The study, published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, surveyed 319 people on their media use and mental health.
Participants were asked to answer how many hours per week they used two or more of the primary forms of media, which include television, music, cell phones, text messaging, computer and video games, web-surfing and others.
Researchers analyzed the participants' mental health by asking them to fill out a survey that used well-established measures to evaluate mental health.
After comparing media use, personality characteristics, depression and social anxiety, researchers found that increased media multitasking was associated with higher depression and social anxiety symptoms, even after controlling for overall media use and the personality traits of neuroticism and extraversion.
"The unique association between media multitasking and these measures of psychosocial dysfunction suggests that the growing trend of multitasking with media may represent a unique risk factor for mental health problems related to mood and anxiety," researchers wrote in the study.
Becker and his team said that future researchers should explore the cause and effect. If future studies find that media multitasking is causing depression and anxiety, recommendations can be used to treat the problem.
However, if additional research finds that the cause for the latest finding is because more depressed and anxious people are turning to media multitasking, which might actually help them deal with their problems, media multitasking can serve as a warning sign that a teen is becoming depressed or anxious.
"Whatever the case, it's very important information to have," Becker concluded. "This could have important implications for understanding how to minimize the negative impacts of increased media multitasking."