Mobile multitasking taken to a whole new level

SSHRC-funded researchers investigate effects of distracted mobile use on the brain

Date published: 2016-09-19 8:55:00 AM

A team of SSHRC-funded researchers at Tech3Lab at HEC Montréal is getting into the minds of Pokémon Go enthusiasts—literally.

We’ve all seen them: people of all ages wandering through neighbourhoods and city streets, eyes fixed on their smart phones. They’re on a mission: find Pokémon characters “where they live.”

It started in July 2016, with the release of the augmented reality game. Players use the GPS on their mobile devices to locate, capture and train virtual creatures.

People walking while fixated on their smartphones isn’t new. In fact, it has been a concern for years. The Tech3Lab researchers, led by co-director Pierre-Majorique Léger, want to find out whether there is a difference in brain activity between people texting and walking, and those playing a mobile game.

Tech3Lab does advanced research into the interactions between technological interfaces and their users. Using tools that measure eye movement and nervous system activity, researchers study the decision-making processes of individuals and groups.

With a $145,000 SSHRC grant they received in March 2016, Léger’s team was studying the cognitive, emotional and behavioural outcomes of mobile multitasking.

In June, they released the results of their pilot study, which analyzed volunteers’ brain waves as they walked and texted on phones. The study found a drop in concentration levels, as well as a 30 per cent increase in errors by participants.

“The reaction time to make microdecisions, which we are always making, is definitely affected by mobile multitasking,” says Léger.

Then, the Pokémon Go craze started, and the team began a second stage of research focusing on mobile game players. Wearing eye-tracking lenses, volunteers walked around Old Montréal playing the game. The lenses help researchers assess brain switching rates, the time it takes to go from performing one task to another.

Léger says what fascinates him is that people still don’t think of distracted mobile use as dangerous behaviour, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

“People still underestimate the risk,” he says.

Léger explains that, when people walk and text, it’s an interactive exercise: you text a message and wait for a response. You may look up from your phone but, he says, “You’re waiting for the conversation to continue.”

When playing a game like Pokémon Go, players are always focused on the application.

“You don’t want to lose momentum,” he says, so you are always in the same state of distraction.

After the study, Léger plans on working with software developers to raise awareness about what happens in the brains of people playing their games.

“They have a professional responsibility to develop games and apps that don’t endanger people,” he says. “This can save lives.”