"Human beings can't multi-task - and technology is making it worse"


Social media is the death knell for multi-tasking and productivity, according to an NUI Galway lecturer.

Eoin Whelan, a lecturer in Information Business Systems, told High Noon that the word 'multi-tasking' is a bit of misnomer.

"What we're actually doing is switching from one task to another," he said. "You're not splitting your attention 50/50. It takes a lot of cognitive power just to be able to switch."

Studies have found that multi-tasking reduces your productivity by up to 40%, kills cognitive performance and increases stress levels. This, paired with the public's intensive use of technology and social media, boasts a further risk to peoples' brains.

"Say if you're reading a newspaper article and you go to check your mobile phone, it can take you up to 20 minutes to get back into what you were doing," he said.

Mr Whelan explained that technology is often developed and manufactured to distract the user - in today's world, attention is currency.


While not everyone gets distracted or stressed out by technology, a large majority experience 'FOMO' or 'the fear of missing out'.

"People are constantly checking their phones because they fear that their friends or colleagues are having more exciting lives than themselves," he said.

But 'FOMO' isn't just something that affects young people - Mr Whelan said research conducted in industry settings shows that professionals check their phone even after they've clocked out.

"We're designed to be information foragers," he said on High Noon. "Every time we check out new information, we get a shot of dopamine. When an email goes off, our brain thinks 'well I have to go check this out, because it could be life-changing!'"

As a lecturer, Mr Whelan has limited the use of laptops and mobile phones in his lectures. A Canadian study shows that even if a person isn't using a laptop directly, someone else on a laptop in a lecture hall can be just as distracting.

The future

When it comes to reducing the problem, Mr Whelan suggests fighting "fire with fire". New technology is coming on stream, called neuro-adaptive technology.

"For example, your laptop in front of you might be able to sense your facial muscles using the webcam and measure your stress and anxiety levels.

"If you're preparing for an interview and you're reading a newspaper article, your laptop will be able to sense that you're concentrating very hard, so it won't distract you with a pop-up or a social media alert [...] I think in the next three to four years that  technology will be widely available commercially."

Fionnuala Jones, Newstalk.com 

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