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Does social media affect memory?

Posted on May 11, 2018

 

The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology has published a new paper that claims documenting events on social media adversely affects the memory.

Princeton University’s Diana Tamir led a team of researchers who analysed how taking photographs and videos for broadcast on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram affected people’s engagement, enjoyment and memory of those events. The subjects of the study indulged in different experiences, such as watching TED talks or taking a tour of Stanford University’s campus church. They were directed to document their experiences in a variety of ways, including taking pictures or noting them, sharing them on social media, recording them but not saving, and to reflect inwardly and think deeply about it.

Participants were then asked questions about how much they valued their experiences. Their level of focus on the memory was observed, and they were then invited to take a quiz that tested the clarity of their memory. Tamir and her researchers of researchers found that when their subjects shared their experiences on social media, it did not affect how much engagement or enjoyment they felt from them. However, those that shared or recorded their memories performed 10% lower on their memory tests across all of the experiments carried out.

Is this social media’s fault?

Although the finger of blame points straight at social media, the team found that it wasn’t the sole culprit; writing notes and even taking photos presented the same effects. Interrupting the experience did not seem to degrade the memory of it – for example, those who were asked to think about a TED presentation retained just as much information as people who watched it as you normally would – but externalizing it did. Presenting it in any form made the subjects lose something about the primary experience.

The results of the study can be traced to the way we decide what to remember. This can be thought of as “internal storage”, with “external storage” being information that we decide to keep elsewhere. Prior to the internet, knowledge is thought to have been spread between a person’s mind and external storage by way of books and other people. It’s speculated that this method maximized the knowledge available to a social group. Previous studies also showed that romantic partners allocated memories between each other, increasing the amount of information that they could recall.

External storage used to take some time and energy to retrieve – think of finding information in a library – but now that we have a wealth of knowledge in our pockets in the form of internet access, it can take mere seconds. This could mean that there is a lesser need to store information internally. Instead, we remember not information itself, but where to find it.

Changing ways of remembering

This study suggests that this process is occurring, but we are shifting not only information to external storage, but the memories of our most enjoyable experiences too. One factor that the researchers think compounds this is the added distraction of multitasking on smartphones, including app notifications and reading updates from friends.

Although participants in the study had more precise memory, there is no hard evidence that social media use impacted upon memory. However, it suggests that using it may prevent people from remembering the very event they’re trying to preserve.

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