Media Multitasking and Depression

shutterstock_104973152In my two previous posts, I explored the relationship between depression and Internet addiction, then depression and television viewing. Academic researchers have found positive correlations in both cases. This caused me to wonder whether a relationship existed between depression and multitasking.

Increase in Multitasking

Overall media use among America’s youth increased by 20% over the past decade. However, the amount of time spent multitasking with media (simultaneously interacting with more than one form of media) increased by 119% during the same time period [1].

Study Links Multitasking to Depression

Mark W. Becker, Reem Alzahabi, and Christopher J. Hopwood of Michigan State University published a study called Media Multitasking Is Associated with Symptoms of Depression and Social Anxiety in the February, 2013, issue of the journal Cyberspychology, Behavior and Social Networking. They studied 319 people and found that media multitasking was associated with higher rates of depression.

The authors couldn’t tell whether multitasking led to higher stress and depression or whether depressed people distracted themselves with multitasking to avoid coping with negative emotions. Given the relationships previously discussed between television viewing, Internet addiction and and depression, I have formulated an opinion on the relationship.

My Take

I personally subscribe to the theory, which Becker and his colleagues cite at the beginning of their study, that multitasking may be replacing face-to-face interactions [2], resulting in lower quality social interactions [3,4] and impaired psychosocial functioning [5,6].

Talking face-to-face and working side-by-side with friends and family is an infinitely richer and more rewarding experience than self-entertainment through media multitasking. It’s like the difference between healthy food and junk food.

Instead of working out their problems with others or honing their social skills, teens escape into a world of media multitasking. This world doesn’t argue with them, mock them, bully them or ostracize them. It’s a pleasant form of escapism that numbs the senses by overloading them. It’s fun. It’s entertaining. It’s much easier than dealing with the real world. And it doesn’t have the stigma or costs associated with drugs or alcohol.

Kids can even pretend to be doing their homework while working on their laptops. The noise coming from TV, music, and video games combines with the distraction of social networks, emails and texts to help them forget whatever is causing their depression. Being able to multitask is even considered a positive trait among many in business.

Multitasking isn’t all bad unless it turns into an addiction, such as a shopping addiction. Shopping addicts shop because their purchases give them a pleasant buzz. Then, when the bill comes due (which they can’t pay), it deepens their depression, leads to more shopping and a downward spiral. A similar mechanism may be at work with multitasking for the segment of the population prone to depression.

We’ve all fallen into the trap from time to time of mistaking activity for achievement. We succumb to the tyranny of the urgent and the easy over the important. Answering emails, texts, and checking social networks somehow seems more important than that big long-term project due at the end of the week.

The scary thing about 10.5 hours of multimedia exposure per day with kids and teenagers is that it happens at a time when their cognitive and thought processes are being formed. To the extent that it becomes a habit or an addiction, the pattern becomes hard to break.

Statistics On Depression

Depression takes a huge toll on America’s health and productivity.  According to Mental Health America, It affects more than 21 million American children and adults annually and is the leading cause of disability in the United States for individuals ages 15 to 44. Lost productive time among U.S. workers due to depression is estimated to be in excess of $31 billion per year. It is also the principal cause of more than 38,000 suicides in the U.S. each year.

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  1. Rideout V, Foehr U, Roberts D., Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds. Menlo Park, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. 2010.
  2. Nie NH. Sociability, interpersonal relations, and the Internet: Reconciling conflicting findings. American Behavioral Scientist Special Issue: The Internet in everyday life. 2001;45(3):420-35.
  3.  Lee PSN, Leung L, Lo V, Xiong C, Wu T. Internet communication versus face-to-
    face interaction in quality of life. Social Indicators Research. 2011;100(3):375-89.
  4.  Moody EJ. Internet use and its relationship to loneliness. CyberPsychology & Behavior. 2001;4(3):393-401.
  5.  Kraut R, Patterson M, Lundmark V, Kiesler S, Mukophadhyay T, Scherlis W. Internet paradox: A social technology that reduces social involvement and psychological well-being? American Psychologist. 1998;53(9):1017-31.
  6. Shapira NA, Lessig MC, Goldsmith TD, et al. Problematic internet use: Proposed classification and diagnostic criteria. Depression and Anxiety. 2003;17(4):207-16.
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One thought on “Media Multitasking and Depression

  1. And the worst part about all this depression and anxiety, et al., is that it still carries a stigma that visible physical illnesses don’t. They are invisible illnesses and many people still consider them personal defects. While most employers wouldn’t hesitate to hire someone who walks with a cane, many would find a way to not hire someone who they knew took medications and/or went to therapy to deal with depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems.

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