What are teenagers actually paying attention to when they multitask while watching TV? An ecological momentary assessment study.

tv multitask ecological momentary assessment

What are teenagers actually paying attention to when they do other things, and watch TV? A study used ecological momentary assessment (EMA)- a method that asks questions in the moment- to find out.

“Hm? What?” You just asked someone a question, but they were watching TV—and they’re also checking Facebook and texting somebody. Breaking in was a little difficult.

We’ve all seen it. We’ve all (presumably) done it. People multitask while watching TV.

However, it seems teenagers seem to do it a lot. Researchers from multiple universities wanted to learn about what teenagers do while watching TV, and what they’re actually paying attention to in the moment. So they used ecological momentary assessment.

Each of the participants were given a PDA, and were asked questions 4-7 times per day when they were not in school about

  1. What they were doing
  2. What they were paying attention to the most (and then second, third most)
  3. What show they were watching (if they were watching something)
  4. Mood

These questions were asked for two one-week intervals that were one week apart. (Meaning they answered questions for a week, skipped a week, and answered questions for a week again.)

In the end, the researchers found that when the students were multi-tasking,

  • Negative affect predicted if they were paying attention more to the TV than to their other task.
  • The genre of the show influenced whether or not they paid primary attention to the TV. Teenagers generally paid primary attention to the TV when multitasking and watching a drama, and secondary attention when watching a comedy.
  • Other devices generally gained more attention to than the TV. So if a teen was playing a video game, or working on the computer, the TV took the back seat.
  • Other activities generally got less attention when watching TV.
  • Cell phones did not get primary attention when watching TV.
  • They generally paid less attention to other people in the room when watching TV. The researchers predicted the opposite, but people actually tended to watch TV as a social activity. As a result, interacting or talking during the show was interpreted as disruptive for the group.

In conclusion, teenagers definitely multitask while watching television. It varies whether or not they are actually paying more attention to the TV, though.

EMA was especially helpful for this study because it was able to ask teenagers questions about their daily life within the context of their daily life. Further, the researchers were able to ask questions in real time, and over time. If the teenagers were given a questionnaire to fill out at home answering these questions, according to the results, they might have paid more attention to the TV instead of the survey.


Christensen, C. G., Bickham, D., Ross, C. S., & Rich, M. (2015). Multitasking With Television Among Adolescents. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 59(1), 130-148.


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