Multitasking as a Collaborative System: Examining the Millennial Generation

Gloria Mark (University of California, Irvine, Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, Department of Informatics)

Mark Warschauer (University of California, Irvine, School of Education)
Stephanie Reich (University of California, Irvine, School of Education)

Yiran Wang (University of California, Irvine, Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, Department of Informatics)
Melissa Niiya (University of California, Irvine, School of Education)

Project Funding:
NSF HCC Small, Award Number: #1218705

Project duration:
Augutst 31st 2012, to August 30th 2015

This research study investigates how Millennials, having grown up with the Internet, can become effective future information workers. More and more, studies are suggesting that multitasking with digital media is associated with errors, stress and degraded performance. Though multitasking has been studied among an older generation in the workplace, to date no one has conducted an in situ investigation of multitasking among Millennials. Though the use of individual applications by Millennials has been studied, no study has ever looked at the entire ecology of technology use with a focus on task and device switching and attention focus. Multitasking has always been studied from an individual perspective; no one has studied multitasking from the perspective as a collaborative social system. There is thus currently a deficit in this type of understanding and a need for theory of how multitasking operates as a social system and affects individuals within that system. This research program investigates how interactive media impacts multitasking behavior among Millennials. We ask the following main research questions:

  • How does growing up as a digital native affect one’s skill as a multitasker?
  • Do Millennials experience information overload and distraction through their connectivity?
  • How does online media experience affect how Millennials learn, communicate, and behave with each other face-to-face?
  • What is the relationship between Millennials’ degree of connectivity and their academic work performance?

We use a mixed-methods approach: computer activity logging, biosensors, interviews, surveys, and experience sampling to collect detailed activity of Millennials’ multitasking behavior to answer our research questions.

We believe that this research will have a vital impact on society. This research provides a detailed description of the ecology of digital media use for Millennials. Our results contribute towards plans and policies that schools and organizations can enact to help people manage their work and use of digital devices more effectively. While there has been much concern given to preventing worker “burnout” and lowering stress among information workers, we feel that our study can provide concrete results of how digital technologies contribute to distraction and stress, especially among the Millennial generation. People who possess high situational awareness are better able to self-organize and take initiative and we believe that less distraction and stress will increase awareness. The study elicits requirements for technology design that can help people better manage their multitasking, reduce errors, and increase their situational awareness. We believe that our study will help people make more effective use of digital media and thus improve future work life, productivity and satisfaction. Technical developments in the Internet and social media are developing rapidly. This study will lead more researchers to focus on the corresponding social and behavioral aspects of digital media use in terms of multitasking.

Ongoing activities:
We conducted two rounds of data collection in 2013 and 2014, of 124 college students for seven days, in their in situ environments. For the past two years, we have been doing data analyses from multiple perspectives. The past research inquiries include: the relationship between multitasking and stress among college students; an ecological accounting of social media use by college students and the effects of such use on mood; and a comparison of actual and reported Facebook use among college students.

We are currently continuing the data analyses and paper writing, with three research foci:  the relationship between sleep (debt) and technology use, with a focus on multitasking; informal learning using social media; and the relationship between technology use (computer and phone) and academic performance in college.


Wang, Y., Niiya, M., Mark, G., Reich, S. M., & Warschauer, M. (2015, February). Coming of Age (Digitally): An Ecological View of Social Media Use among College Students. In Proceedings of the 18th ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing (pp. 571-582). ACM.

Mark, G., Wang, Y., & Niiya, M. (2014, April). Stress and multitasking in everyday college life: an empirical study of online activity. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 41-50). ACM.


“I don’t really post”: Comparing Actual and Reported Facebook Use Among College Students

Strictly by the Facebook: Unobtrusive Methods for Differentiating Users.

For more information contact:

Gloria Mark:

Yiran Wang:


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