Media Multitasking: Using Multiple Digital Devices At Same Time Linked To Obesity


Researchers say switching from gadget to gadget can impair self-control when it comes to eating, making it harder to resist the temptation to snack on unhealthy foods.


HOUSTON — Limiting yourself to using just one digital device at a time may do wonders for your waistline. A new study finds that media multitasking — or flipping back-and-forth between your smartphone, smart watch, laptop and tablet — can contribute to obesity.

Researchers from Rice, Dartmouth, and The Ohio State universities say that people who mindlessly switch between digital gadgets and gizmos are more likely to struggle with an increased lack of self-control, particularly when it comes to eating.

“Increased exposure to phones, tablets and other portable devices has been one of the most significant changes to our environments in the past few decades, and this occurred during a period in which obesity rates also climbed in many places,” says lead author Richard Lopez, a postdoctoral research fellow at Rice, in a university release. “So, we wanted to conduct this research to determine whether links exists between obesity and abuse of digital devices — as captured by people’s tendency to engage in media multitasking.”

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For the study, authors surveyed 123 young adults ages 18 to 23 to assess their levels of media multitasking and distractibility. Participants were asked about tech-related urges such as checking their phones while doing unrelated activities, like talking to a friend. They were also polled on distractions that crop up during work and other high-focus activities.

Researchers found that individuals who showed higher levels of media multitasking tended to have a higher body mass index (BMI), and a greater body fat percentage.

In a second portion of the study, 72 individuals who participated in the first assessment agreed to undergo an fMRI scan and have their brain activity monitored while they were shown various images. During the test, various pictures of unhealthy foods were shown to participants from time to time.

The authors say that the part of the brain associated with food temptation showed increased activity when those with high levels of media multitasking saw images of food.

Interestingly, the authors say that people flagged as media multitaskers tended to spend more time at campus cafeterias.

“Such links are important to establish, given rising obesity rates and the prevalence of multimedia use in much of the modern world,” says Lopez.

The study was published in the journal Brain Imaging and Behavior.

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