Parents often worry that Facebook use may be undermining their child’s intelligence, but the results of a study published this year show the opposite is true. Over 100 teenagers between 15 and 18 years old were recruited. Teenagers were selected in order to find out if Facebook affected intelligence during a critical period of brain development. The teens were asked how long they had been using Facebook and were assessed on measures of working memory, verbal IQ, and spelling using validated and standardized tests.
The findings, published in Computers & Education, showed that the longer the duration of Facebook membership, the better the test scores in working memory, verbal IQ, and spelling. Users who had been members of Facebook for longer than a year had better test scores than peers who had been members for less than a year.
In order to find out if Facebook—rather than social media in general—was linked to a user’s intelligence, participants were also asked about their YouTube use. However, YouTube use was not linked to intelligence.
What makes Facebook so special? One possibility is that Facebook exercises our working memory--our ability to work with information. It affords us an opportunity to keep up with friends and colleagues from around the world. Appropriately responding to a friend’s post about a health setback, or a new relationship, interpreting the emotional cues in a photograph, inhibiting irrelevant information (like a friend’s post about what he had for a snack), or adding to what you know about a close friend, may use working memory.
This cognitively demanding engagement with dynamic information can be contrasted with the passive usage of social media sites like YouTube, that primarily require users to sit back and view video snippets, and occasionally comment on them. In this context, is not surprising that YouTube use isn’t linked with higher test scores. The active engagement required by Facebook may be the reason it is associated with higher test scores.
This finding doesn't necessarily mean that social media is a brain trainer? While this study shows that Facebook is linked to intelligence, additional research is needed to see if it actually improves intelligence.
Read more about Tracy and Ross's research in THE WORKING MEMORY ADVANTAGE and THE NEW IQ (UK version)