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All of Your Devices Are Bumming You Out

A new study from Michigan State University shows that media multitasking exhibits a strong correlation with social anxiety and depression.

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re also doing something else at the same time—texting, IM-ing, taking pictures of your penis with your smartphone… whatever it is you kids do.

Your undivided attention would be nice. But don’t do it for anyone’s sake but your own. A new study from Michigan State University shows that media multitasking exhibits a strong correlation with social anxiety and depression.


Importantly, the direction of causality remains to be seen: Does multi-tasking make us more anxious and depressed? Or, as the study’s leader, Mark W. Becker, an assistant professor of psychology, put it in an email, “are depressed and anxious [people] turning toward media multitasking as a form of distraction?”

The results of this study aren’t conclusive in that regard, he says. But they’re an important step. “While that question will not be easy to answer, it is worth pursing because the practical implications of the findings depend on the causal direction,” he said.

The MSU study, published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, isn’t the first to link depression and social anxiety with media use. But it is the first to specifically link them with multi-tasking. As the authors note, earlier scholarship was based on “a rising concern that interactions with media may be replacing face-to-face interactions,” and explored basic correlations between increased media use and mental health. A subsequent wave of studies took a more nuanced approach, suggesting links between psychosocial functioning and “the type of media being used, the purpose for which it is being used, and the individual personality characteristics of the user.”

We've all been there

Those studies, the authors argue, still ignored the fact that the way we interact with media was also changing. We weren’t just using it more overall, or for different reasons (say, texting instead of calling, or emailing instead of meeting face-to-face). We were also using more of it at once. We were multi-tasking. Citing a 2010 study (PDF) by Rideout, Foehr, and Roberts about the media use of eight-to-eighteen-year-olds, Becker et al, note that, “Indeed, while overall media use among America’s youth increased by 20 percent over the past decade, the amount of time spent multitasking with media (simultaneously interacting with more than one form of media) increased by over 119 percent over the same period.”

Becker and his team surveyed 319 college undergraduates, asking questions about their media use, their experiences with depression and anxiety, and their personalities. After controlling for overall media use and for neurotic and extroverted personality traits, multiple regression analyses still revealed that multi-tasking was a “unique predictor” of self-reported symptoms of social anxiety and depression. Interestingly, the authors note, overall media use was not specifically linked to increased social anxiety; multi-tasking was.

But how to determine causality? For one, it's not hard to imagine that someone anxious about social interactions would be more prone to bouncing from IM to text to email to Facebook, and so on. At the same time, trying to keep up with multiple interactions could certainly be cause for anxiety.

Becker conceded pinpointing the root cause would be difficult. But he had a few ideas about what such experiments might look like.

“Our first approach is going to be to investigate whether we can alter people's mood or anxiety level (even just a little bit and temporarily) by having them engage in media multitasking,” he suggested in his email. “If so, we would have some evidence that multitasking is capable of impacting mood. From there we might be able to infer that engaging in these behaviors repeatedly and over an extended period of time may produce more long lasting changes in mood.”