Commentary

Social Media Sharing Interferes With Memory, Learning

From cat videos to vacation photos to recipes and back to cat pictures again, social media is all about sharing content – but that core functionality may be interfering with our ability to learn and remember new information, according to a new study by researchers at Cornell University and Beijing University.

In the study, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, the researchers asked Chinese students to read posts from the Chinese social media site Weibo, a microblogging platform similar to Twitter, as well as a scientific article printed on paper. During the social media portion of the experiment, one group of students was also allowed to repost interesting content from Weibo if they chose, while the other group had no option for reposting.

The researchers then tested the students for recall of the messages in the posts as well as the content of the printed article. Overall, the students who were allowed to repost material returned twice the number of wrong answers as the group which was not allowed to repost, and displayed lower comprehension of the original messages across the board – but recall was especially poor for the messages that they had actually reposted.

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In the second part of the experiment, the researchers tested subjects on the content of the printed scientific article after allowing the students to use Weibo, again with one group allowed to repost and the other prohibited from doing so. Once again, students who were allowed to repost content on Weibo did significantly worse in comprehension and recall than students who only read the article.

A questionnaire issued after the test on the article showed that the students who reposted were operating under more cognitive demands and fatigue, in what one of the researchers described as “cognitive overload.”

Back in 2014 I wrote about another study whose results suggest social media makes us, well, dumb, by enabling a kind of cognitive copycat phenomenon, undermining our true analytical skills.

In the study, titled “Analytical Reasoning Task Reveals Limits of Social Learning in Networks,” researchers at the University of Oregon grouped subjects into social networks structured to have different levels of “connectivity,” controlling the extent and frequency of interaction between subjects. The subjects were then given a series of challenging “cognitive reflection tests,” requiring the respondents to use their analytical skills to avoid arriving at the seemingly obvious (but incorrect) conclusion.

Subjects first had to solve the problem themselves; then, as the experiment went on, they were allowed to see answers from other members of their social network before they gave their own. The researchers found that subjects in networks with high connectivity were able to give the correct answer more often when they were allowed to see their neighbors’ answers first. But when the subjects were then forced to solve three more problems without the benefit of their social networks, the error rate rose to the previous level. Thus, while the social networks had helped them get the right answer, they hadn’t improved their ability to think through the problems independently.

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