Social Media (Probably) Isn’t Making You Stupid
Social media gets unfairly maligned sometimes.
Posted Apr 26, 2019
In today’s digital environment, claims about the allegedly detrimental effects of social media seem to be becoming increasingly common. In particular, many articles have appeared on the internet making claims to the effect that social media, particularly Facebook, is somehow making people stupid. Are such claims really true? Although some studies have found links between Facebook use and negative learning outcomes, it is not necessarily so that the one is causing the other, as it may be that people who spend a lot of time on Facebook might not be that interested in learning in the first place. Additionally, there is evidence that in some cases social media use can actually increase one’s knowledge of current affairs. Hence, whether social media makes you “smarter” or “dumber” probably depends a lot on how you choose to use it.
Try Googling something like “does Facebook make people stupid” and a host of articles are likely to come up answering in the affirmative. For example, Time published a sensationalized article “Social Media Is Making You Stupid” that cites a study that supposedly shows this. The Time article poses the question, “How can spending more time on Facebook or Twitter end up making us stupider?” However, the Time article is misleading because the study in question (Rahwan, Krasnoshtan, Shariff, & Bonnefon, 2014) was not even about Facebook or Twitter and it did not contain any findings in which people became less smart than they were to begin with.
The study was a lab experiment using simulated social networks testing social learning rather than actual social media. In the experiment, participants had to solve a set of problems that required overriding one’s automatic intuitive responses and using analytical reasoning to derive the correct answer (this is called the cognitive reflection test). Participants first did this on their own, and then in a series of networked groups in which they could compare their answers and learn from each other. The results showed that participants tended to blindly copy each other’s answers without understanding the reasoning processes involved. However, the results do not show that the simulated social networking made the participants “stupid” because their performance in the networked conditions was no better or worse than when they solved the problems on their own. The authors stated that their findings suggested that “social learning does not seem to help individuals bypass their bias in favour of intuition,” perhaps because the participants were cognitively lazy. To be fair to the participants though, the cognitive reflection test is known to be overly difficult for most people. Hence, a more accurate but less exciting conclusion would be that “social media does not make people smarter.” Time’s headline and interpretation of the study is actually an ironic example of blindly copying information without understanding it, as their article rehashes a linked article on Phys.org with a similar title that also misinterpreted the findings.
However, there have been some studies on actual social media usage that have linked Facebook usage with negative learning outcomes. For example, one study of college students found that those who had Facebook accounts tended to have lower grades and spend less time studying than their peers who were not on Facebook (Kirschner & Karpinski, 2010). Another study examined changes in political knowledge across two US political elections and found that people who reported higher Facebook usage acquired less political knowledge over four years than those who reported lower or no usage (Lee & Xenos, 2019). Interestingly, another study on current affairs knowledge (Boukes, 2019) compared usage of Twitter vs. Facebook and found that higher usage of Twitter was associated with greater acquisition of current affairs knowledge over several months, whereas higher Facebook usage was associated with less acquisition of such knowledge over the same period. The authors suggested that the design of the two platforms may have different effects on how much news a person is exposed to. In the case of Twitter, its design facilitates acquiring news, whereas certain features of Facebook are less suited to this purpose. Additionally, Facebook algorithms manipulate what content goes to the top of people’s timelines so that users tend to see more personal messages such as updates from friends rather than news. These differences suggest a somewhat more nuanced picture of the effects of social media than is suggested by statements about “social media making you stupid.” Additionally, the findings of these studies in themselves do not necessarily suggest that social media is what is causing the effects, as other factors need to be considered.
In addition to differences between the platforms that affect news exposure, there may be differences between the users themselves that influence how much knowledge they acquire from their usage. Specifically, a couple of studies have found differences in the personality traits and motives of people who prefer to predominantly use either Facebook or Twitter. One study found that Twitter users scored higher than Facebook users on a personality trait called "need for cognition." This trait refers to a person’s motivation to engage in and enjoy effortful thinking and intellectual activity. On the other hand, Facebook users were more extraverted and sociable than Twitter users. This suggests that people who use Facebook tend to be more interested in using the site for social interaction rather than learning about the world, whereas Twitter users have a greater need for intellectual stimulation and use the site to broaden their knowledge.
A more recent study (Marshall, Ferenczi, Lefringhausen, Hill, & Deng, 2018) also found that Twitter users were higher than Facebook users on openness to experience, a personality trait representing the breadth and complexity of a person’s mental life, which is strongly associated with need for cognition. Additionally, Twitter users high on openness to experience were more likely to tweet about intellectual pursuits. These findings suggest that how people use social media is likely related to their personal predispositions and desires. Hence, negative learning outcomes associated with Facebook may occur because people who are drawn to the site are less inclined to take an interest in intellectual pursuits and are more interested in chatting and sharing personal updates. On the other hand, people who are interested in finding intellectual stimulation can and do use social media sites such as Twitter for this purpose. Hence, understanding the psychological effects of social media use requires more complex and nuanced thinking that can be found in articles making simplistic claims like “social media makes people stupid.” Considering the amount of distorted reporting on the subject, when using any media, social or otherwise, it’s worth remembering the old adage, “don’t believe everything you read.”
© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.
Boukes, M. (2019). Social network sites and acquiring current affairs knowledge: The impact of Twitter and Facebook usage on learning about the news. Journal of Information Technology & Politics, 0(0), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/19331681.2019.1572568
Kirschner, P. A., & Karpinski, A. C. (2010). Facebook® and academic performance. Computers in Human Behavior, 26(6), 1237–1245. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2010.03.024
Lee, S., & Xenos, M. (2019). Social distraction? Social media use and political knowledge in two U.S. Presidential elections. Computers in Human Behavior, 90, 18–25. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2018.08.006
Marshall, T. C., Ferenczi, N., Lefringhausen, K., Hill, S., & Deng, J. (2018). Intellectual, narcissistic, or Machiavellian? How Twitter users differ from Facebook-only users, why they use Twitter, and what they tweet about. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000209
Rahwan, I., Krasnoshtan, D., Shariff, A., & Bonnefon, J.-F. (2014). Analytical reasoning task reveals limits of social learning in networks. Journal of The Royal Society Interface, 11(93), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsif.2013.1211