People easily distracted by their phones perform worse on memory tests

woman texting

Multitasking may affect your memory

Westend61/Getty Images

Media multitasking, such as scrolling through social media while watching a movie, may be linked to more lapses in attention and difficulty remembering things.

“Our data support the idea that we should be aware of how we engage with media,” says Kevin Paul Madore at Stanford University in California. He and his team compared people’s self-reported levels of media multitasking with their performances in a memory task, as part of a study including 80 participants aged 18 to 26.

The researchers specifically tested episodic memory, which helps us recall events, by presenting the participants with images of objects on a computer and then later asking them to recall whether they had seen the objects earlier or not. At the same time, the team used EEG and eye tracking to monitor people’s attentiveness.


Madore and his colleagues also asked participants to complete a questionnaire to determine how often they engage in various forms of media multitasking, such as texting while watching TV or reading while listening to music. They found that people who reported more frequent media multitasking had more lapses in attention during the memory task, which was associated with increased difficulties with remembering.

“I think conscious awareness of attentiveness and limiting potential distractions can go a long way in memory preparedness and reducing mind wandering or mind blanking,” says Madore. “Resisting media multitasking during school lectures or work zooms, or limiting media multitasking to set times, could be valuable.”

“Media multitasking is becoming more prominent. We don’t actually know anything about the effects yet,” says Amy Orben at the University of Cambridge. “In a lot of technology studies we ask people, ‘How many hours do you spend doing x?’, ‘How many hours do you spend on social media?’, ‘How many hours do you spend gaming?’, and we don’t capture a lot of the times when they co-occur.”

Orben says it will be important to investigate whether media multitasking causes attentional lapses and memory failure or whether there is another factor, such as how generally distractible a person is, that could explain the association. This could be investigated through studies that monitor people over time, she says.

“On the days where you have more [media multitasking], does your memory decrease on the next day? Or does the memory decrease on one day predict you being more multitasking the next day? I think it’s a really interesting area that we should explore,” says Orben.

Journal reference: Nature, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2870-z

More on these topics: