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Media multitasking may push you to healthy (or unhealthy) snacks

Using more than one device with a screen while you’re having a snack may influence your food choices, a new study suggests.

Specifically, when people engage in media multitasking that makes them feel good, they’re more prone to eat healthy, says Anastasia Kononova, assistant professor in the department of advertising and public relations at Michigan State University.

One example: shopping online while watching television and texting.

As reported in Computers in Human Behavior, 140 participants watched an episode of Two and a Half Men, without any scenes that included food and eating, so that eating behaviors weren’t influenced. Commercials were also carefully selected to avoid those advertising food or drinks.

“…when using multiple screens makes people feel stressed or overwhelmed, they eat worse.”

There were four groups of participants who followed one of four scenarios: watching TV only; watching TV and texting; watching TV, texting, reading an article online, and filling out a quiz; and watching TV, texting, and shopping online. Each participant had a choice of healthy snacks—almonds, grape tomatoes, and carrots—or unhealthy snacks—potato chips, chocolates, and candy.

Participants rated the third scenario, involving an online article and quiz, the most difficult and the least enjoyable combination. Participants in this group who chose unhealthy snacks ate 32 percent more than those who chose healthy snacks. In general, most people picked only one healthy snack and two junk food snacks.

However, the group that watched TV, texted, and shopped online consumed, on average, 26 percent more healthy snacks than unhealthy.

And those who only watched TV ate the most of both types of snacks.

“Media multitasking can affect rationalization process,” Kononova says. “Our main finding was that people like some media multitasking situations and hate others. And, when using multiple screens makes people feel stressed or overwhelmed, they eat worse.”

Obesity may make ignoring ‘food cues’ even harder

It could be that unpleasant media multitasking increases cognitive load, so it’s harder for people to have control over snack selection and rationalize with themselves about healthy eating, Kononova says. It could also be “stress eating,” during which people experience unpleasant feelings and turn to more pleasant foods.

“The findings of this study could be useful for parents, educators, and other caregivers who might want to discourage media multitasking among young people in their care,” she says. “At the same time, not every form of multitasking seems to be harmful for one’s diet. If you enjoy using multiple screens together, it might actually help your food choices.”

The study is especially relevant since most young people use multiple screens at a time (TV, phone, and laptop), Kononova says.

Additional coauthors are from the Curtis L. Gerrish School of Business at MSU; Endicott College; and CHA University, South Korea.

Source: Michigan State University

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