Cognitive Impacts of Social Media and Digital Devices

As an educator that works both in educational technology and teaching psychology, I have a natural infinity for the intersection between technology and psychology. One area of this intersection that interests me is the impact social media has on us cognitively.

Image Licensed from Shutterstock

Image Licensed from Shutterstock

Interesting research exists about the impacts social media has on attention and emotions. In regards to attention, the research tends to focus on the issue of multitasking. What we are actually doing is not multitasking, but task-switching, which is switching from one task to another very quickly. Many people these days have multiple windows open on their computer and have their smartphone nearby while they work. Social media sites are often open on both devices, especially with today’s students. This issue has been the main culprit in the increase in task-switching. Research is showing that our brain doesn’t really have the capacity to multitask or task-switch. There are biological reasons for this. As this article explains,

“Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new – the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies, and kittens.”

Maybe the brain will evolve its capacity to be an efficient multitasking machine like a computer, but until then, which will be way beyond our lifetime, multitasking should be considered a bad habit because of these reasons and the negative impacts they bring on our ability to focus our attention.

In the realm of emotion, fascinating research exists about how constant use of digital devices is affecting our ability to read emotions in the real world. A 2014 study done by researchers at the University of California Los Angeles found that sixth graders who went 5 days without access to any screens (mobile, computer, or TV) showed a better ability to read human emotions than peers who continued their digital screen habits. The conclusion was that we, especially kids, can’t learn non-verbal emotional cues through digital devices. We can only learn those through consistent face-to-face interactions with other people.

The recommendations for both of these cognitive impacts wouldn’t be to abandon our digital devices completely. Turning them off when we really need to focus on a task is usually a good approach. Otherwise, finding a balance and using devices in moderation would be the best approach.

This post is cross-posted here.

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About togalearning

Technology Learning Coach, High School Social Studies and online IB Psychology teacher

Posted on February 10, 2016, in Psychology, Technology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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