TV, Internet vie for attention more than we think

And the winner of the competition for our attention is … the computer screen. A new study finds that people switch their attention between computer monitors and TVs more often than they imagine -- much more often -- but that they spend longer looking at the computer overall.

Researchers from Boston College asked a mix of 42 college students and staff — from ages 18 to 65 — to sit in a room with a laptop already connected to a Web browser and a 36-inch high-definition TV already connected to a cable system. The participants were told to spend 30 minutes with the two devices, dividing their time however they pleased (but no cellphones or magazines were allowed). The scientists monitored the participants’ head and eye movements with a video camera, and a second camera recorded the content they watched.

The media consumers spent about two-thirds of their time watching the computer, switching their attention between the two about 120 times. (They guessed on a survey that they had switched their attention roughly 15 times.) Most of the gazes were shorter than 10 seconds, although 55% of the time spent on the computer (and 48% of TV time) was in chunks of greater than one minute.

The researchers published their findings online for a forthcoming issue of Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.


The authors write in their discussion:

“Both media seem to have limited ability to ‘hook’ a participant into extended runs of attention. Television attention is especially composed of very quick gazes overall, supporting the contention that much of television viewing is automatic and involves little cognitive effort or attention.”

And that was without texting.

The authors say more research is needed to determine whether our attention is this divided when a task — say, homework — is at hand.


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