chapter  14
13 Pages

Media Choice Despite Multitasking?


Most chapters in this book presume that media users usually have particular reasons or an identifiable motivation to select (or not to select) specific media and certain forms of content at any given point in time. If we look at patterns of media use today, however, one of the most striking characteristics seems to be that many (more than anything else: younger) users do not always select one medium and one form of content over another anymore. Instead, some, and increasingly more individuals use different media and different content simultaneously. They play a computer game while listening to music, they watch a TV program while talking to a friend over the phone, etc. and thereby engage themselves in what has been called multitasking. One reason for this particular form of media behavior certainly results from the increased availability of various media. From a psychological point of view, however, we need to explore the users’ underlying reasons, motivations, or goals to understand the phenomenon. Research in media psychology and communication has a long tradition in attempting to identify the one and only reason or-in the context of uses-and-gratifications research-the specific motivation for each particular exposure situation to media content (Sherry & Boyan, 2008; Vorderer, 2008). Those attempts have usually started with a definition of what needs to be explained (the explanandum), and this, in almost all cases, was the use of one particular medium or of some specific content. From there, it was often tried to identify the drives, motives, or goals (as explanans) that explain the observed selection and responses to the particular media usage. Although about one fourth of all the media-related choices of U.S. children and adolescents appeared in the context of multitasking even a few years ago (cf., Foehr, 2006) and although this phenomenon is widely discussed in public (e.g., Wallis, 2006) it has hardly been recognized in media exposure theory. Multitasking challenges the very idea of media users making a more or less deliberate decision about what kind of media they are going to use and what specific content they are willing to expose themselves to. Instead of asking why one person watches TV or selects a specific show the question now rather seems to be: Why does somebody combine the use

of various media at the same time? Is this to simultaneously gratify several needs or does multitasking indicate a person’s difficulties in selecting one media (content) over the other? In order to shed some light on this relevant question for media exposure theory and research, we will start with an overview of how multitasking has been conceptualized so far within communication studies, summarize the most important empirical studies on the prevalence of the phenomenon, turn to the motivational question of why media users involve themselves in this specific kind of activity and then refer to the most important findings about the effects of multitasking currently known. On the basis of this summary, we will end the chapter with some conclusions for future research.