Students who send and receive instant messages while completing a reading assignment take longer to get through their texts but apparently still manage to understand what they’re reading, according to one of several new studies that look at the academic effects of students’ computer and video-game-playing habits.
The results were presented during this month’s annual meeting of the Washington-based American Psychological Association, a national group that represents 148,000 psychologists. Held here Aug. 14-17, the meeting drew 14,000 conference-goers.
“Students who are managing busy lives may think they are accomplishing more by multitasking, but they will actually need more time to achieve the same level of performance on an academic task,” said Laura L. Bowman, the lead researcher on the instant-messaging study and a psychology professor at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain.
Ms. Bowman and her colleagues based their conclusions on a study of 59 college students who were tracked in a university laboratory while they read from a college psychology textbook on a computer.
The psychologists randomly assigned the students to take part in one of three groups. The first group read the text on screen with no interruptions. The second group answered instant messages first and then did their reading. The third group multitasked, fielding instant messages as they read.
Instant messaging is a form of real-time online communication that is faster than normal e-mail.
More Time on Task
The messages, which included questions such as “What classes are you taking this semester?” were designed to be typical in context and in frequency to the instant messages students would normally receive on their computers.
Even after taking into account the time students spent on the instant messaging, the researchers found, the third group took about 15 minutes longer than the other two groups to complete the reading—roughly 50 percent more time than the other two groups took.
All three groups, however, fared about the same on a test given later on to check their understanding of the text. The researchers said that last finding runs counter to other studies, which suggest that students’ academic performance suffers when, for example, a television is playing in the background.
A study the authors published last year, in fact, found that students who reported high use of electronic media were more likely than avid book readers to have problems with becoming distracted in their reading.
“We thought for sure that we were going to find that the multitasking students were going to show a decrement in performance,” said Ms. Bowman.
Researchers theorized that one reason that the multitasking students did as well—but took longer—may be that they went back and reread passages after pausing to answer instant messages.
Study co-author Laura E. Levine, an associate professor of psychology at Central Connecticut, said that, although their study focuses on college-age students, the findings probably also hold true for younger students, many of whom are regular users of instant-messaging.
The video-game studies presented at the conference highlighted ways in which the games can provide insights into students’ problem-solving skills and improve manual dexterity.
In one paper, Fran C. Blumberg, a psychologist at Fordham University in New York City, and her research partner, Sabrina S. Ismailer, listened to 122 5th, 6th, and 7th graders “think aloud” as they played a commercial video game they had never seen before.
“Younger children seem more interested in setting short-term goals for their learning in the game compared to older children, who are more interested in simply playing,” said Ms. Blumberg. She said the younger children’s responses suggest that, even when they are just having fun, young children may need to break down problems into smaller parts.
Another series of studies by scholars at the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University in Ames found that high school and college students who played violent video games were more hostile and less forgiving than students who played games with more positive social values, according to Douglas A. Gentile, the lab director.
He said lab researchers also found a link between extensive video-game playing and obesity in college students.
Yet on a more positive note, another pair of media-lab studies suggests that the technology may be helpful in the medical profession.
Those studies found that laparascopic surgeons who play video games at least three hours a week are faster and more accurate in their work than those who never play electronic games. They also found that surgeons seem to have better hand dexterity immediately after playing a video game that requires spatial skills and nimble fingers.
A version of this article appeared in the August 27, 2008 edition of Education Week as Instant Messaging, Video Games Probed for Effects on Academics