Home > Attention, Memory > Updating your status or updating your brain?

Updating your status or updating your brain?

If you’re on the computer reading this blog, there is almost a 100% chance that you also have Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube open on your computer as well.  In today’s world, social networking sites have become an integral part of our everyday lives.  Other than “stalking” photos, tweeting our every move, and watching cat videos, most people do not put a lot of thought into how social networking sites affect their lives.  Tracy Packiam Alloway and Ross Geoffrey Alloway’s 2012 paper, “The impact of engagement with social networking sites (SNSs) on cognitive skills,” looks at the effects of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube use on working memory, attention skills, and reported levels of social connectedness.

To explore a possible connection between social networking sites and memory, the researchers asked participants to complete some online tests in order to determine basic working memory and attention abilities.  Attention spans directly relate to how much work someone can do, and social networking sites might take a toll on productivity.  Working memory is the cognitive system a person uses to remember and use information for a short period of time.  It is used for complex mental tasks and involves attention as well.  The “Processing Letter Recall” task tested memory by showing participants letters quickly right after each other and then having participants decide if the second letter was the same was the first.  The second test, “Shape Recall,” showed participants two shapes in quick succession and then had participants determine if the second was the same color and in the same location as the first shape.  The “Attention Test” had participants press the space bar each time they saw a number other than 5, every other number was considered a “distracter.”  A second version had participants hit the space bar only if the number 5 was shown.  In addition, participants completed a social connectedness scale and social networking questionnaire.  The social connectedness scale gauged belongingness in terms of connectedness and affiliation.  The social networking questionnaire determined how much time participants spend on social networking and how they spend that time on the social networking sites.

The researchers found that certain activities on each site best predicted working memory scores through a positive relationship.  If these activities increased, so did working memory score.  On Facebook this was checking a friend’s status updates.  This could be due to the nature of this (exhausting!) activity – it involves remembering, processing, and then updating (who doesn’t like knowing every detail of someone’s life) with new information in a short period of time.  Imagine seeing that your friend had recently entered in a relationship and updated his or her status about it.  That tidbit would be important for conversation in the near future, so you’re definitely going to want to remember it.  For YouTube, simply watching videos best-predicted verbal working memory while telling friend to watch a video predicted visuo-spatial working memory.  The researchers suggested that this could be because recommending videos involves planning and keeping track of recommendations.  Unfortunately, our beloved 140-character Twitter did not have any specific activities that predicted working memory test scores.

The researchers looked at attention skills by first creating a way to describe participants based on whether they were active or passive users on social networking sites.  The two descriptions varied with each social networking site, but were based on how frequently members engaged in certain behavior such as posting and commenting on friends’ statuses.  Active users on YouTube were people who commented on and posted videos as well as watched videos more, while passive users solely watched and told their friends to watch videos.  The researchers also found that active users were more accurate in the attention test at first but passive users eventually became more accurate in later trials.  They also found that active users were able to focus on several things and did not disregard the distracter numbers, showing they are not as good at ignoring irrelevant information.  This suggests that they are trained to process lots of information in parallel from social networking use.  Interestingly, as the passive users went through the trials, they were able to gain practice and be as accurate as the active users.

Participants who used Facebook rated themselves as having high levels of social connectedness while Twitter and YouTube seemed to have no bearing on social connectedness.  This is somewhat expected since Facebook is a social networking site that was created to keep people connected.  Twitter and YouTube can be used individually but Facebook involves interacting with others.

What does this all mean?  The results of this study suggest that people who use social networking sites tend to have slightly better working memory and attention skills in certain tasks.  It is interesting that the use of social networking sites improves scores on various tasks, but it would be beneficial to look at the impact on daily activities, such as school grades and jobs – here is another cool article on this subject!  Of course, there is a logical and distinct negative link between memory and attention.  When attention is divided while doing something, performance in memory related activities will be worse.  This is why it may not be the best idea to use Facebook or other social networking sites while studying.  Divided attention while studying is definitely not productive or effective.  Though next time your boss or your parents tells you to get off Facebook and do your work, you can say you are improving your “cognitive abilities” before starting your work!


If you want a break from Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube, you can check out the article here!



Alloway, T. P., & Alloway, R. G. (2012). The impact of engagement with social networking sites (SNSs) on cognitive skills. Computers in Human Behavior, 28(5), 1748-1754. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2012.04.015

  1. April 30th, 2013 at 17:57 | #1

    This is so interesting that people have better working memory and attentional skills since the public opinion about social networking sites, like Facebook are negative in relation to their impacts to attention. It seems frowned upon to multitask, yet there may be benefits to using these sites. Did the researchers mention anything about using these sites while you are doing homework and its impact on attention?

  2. April 30th, 2013 at 19:13 | #2

    Rebecca – They did not mention anything about using these sites while doing homework. In the conclusion, they discussed that future research could investigate how Facebook use impacts grades. I think what you brought up is really interesting though because while social networking sites can improve working memory and attention skills from frequent use, using these sites while doing work would probably have a negative impact on your work.

  3. May 6th, 2013 at 14:39 | #3

    The results of this study were surprising to me. Like Rebecca said, you normally only hear about multi-tasking as having negative effects on cognitive abilities. It would be interesting to see if the same results would be shown across all age groups. Since our generation has grown up with social media, I bet our multi-tasking scores would be higher than those of our parents generation, who were not exposed to such sites while they were growing up.

You must be logged in to post a comment.