Is sharing on social media harmful to learning and memory?

by L&D02 May 2016
Whether it’s footage of Ronaldo scoring a stunning free kick or a staggering statistic that’s important to draw attention to, sharing content on social media is becoming increasingly common among all age groups.

However, this simple action can potentially interfere with your ability to learn and remember, according to researchers at Cornell University and Beijing University.

In fact, they found that disseminating material on the likes of Twitter and Facebook can lead to “cognitive overload” which can then impact our performance in the real world.

"Most people don't post original ideas any more. You just share what you read with your friends," said Qi Wang, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University.

"But they don't realise that sharing has a downside. It may interfere with other things we do."

The study involved Chinese participants at Beijing University as subjects. They were split into two groups and presented with a series of messages from the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, Weibo.

After reading each message, members of one group could either repost or go to the next message, while the other group was given only the "next" option.

When they finished the series of messages, the students were given an online test on the content of those messages.

The results found that those in the repost group made almost twice as many errors and often demonstrated poor comprehension.

"For things that they reposted, they remembered especially worse," Wang added.

The researchers theorised that reposters were suffering from "cognitive overload".  

This means that when there is a choice to share or not share, the decision itself consumes cognitive resources, said Wang.

This led to a second experiment: After viewing a series of Weibo messages, the students were given an unrelated paper test on their understanding of a New Scientist article.

Again, participants in the no-feedback group performed better than the reposters.

The subjects also completed a Workload Profile Index where they were asked to rate the cognitive demands of the message-viewing task. The results included a higher cognitive drain for the repost group.

"The sharing leads to cognitive overload, and that interferes with the subsequent task," Wang said.

"In real life when students are surfing online and exchanging information and right after that they go to take a test, they may perform worse," she said.

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