4 Ways Social Media Is Making You Dumber

Numerous studies prove that critical thinking and thoughtful discourse are suffering at the hands of social media. Don't become a victim.
December 02, 2013

The results are in, and they aren’t pretty: Social media is making you, me and everyone around us dumber. The nature of social media is brutal. Just consider for a moment the instant access to millions of people, a bombardment of short messages that lack context, virtual communication devoid of nonverbal cues, and a false sense of connectedness that wreaks havoc on our ability to socialize.

I have noticed a growing number of friends and business associates who never answer their phones yet always reply instantly to text messages. Others do everything possible to avoid a face-to-face meeting even with people in the same building. This is a disturbing trend that hinders our ability to connect with others, hurts our businesses and is literally making us dumber.

4 Ways You're Losing Your Edge

The negative effects of social media aren’t necessarily obvious at first. It takes time for our brains and behaviors to change. These changes are even less noticeable when everyone around us appears to be making similar decisions about using social media. But after nearly a decade of social media’s pervasive presence, there is sufficient research available that proves the existence of at least four negative consequences of social media’s constant presence in our lives:

1. Social media hurts your short-term memory.

Erik Fransen is a globally recognized expert on short-term memory at Stockholm’s Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan (Royal Institute of Technology) and is affiliated with the Stockholm Brain Institute. His research indicates that overuse of social media hurts the brain in two ways. First it impacts short-term memory formation. The fire hose stream of information that you subject your brain to during a typical session on Twitter or Facebook overloads your brain's ability to process data and file away the important elements. Continually subjecting your brain to social media also prevents the brain from entering the “down time” mode it needs for internal clean up, storage and information transfer. Staring out the window in the back of a taxi is actually good for your brain.

2. Social media makes you more susceptible to peer pressure.

Bernardo Huberman, Haiyi Zhu and Yarun Luon of HP Labs recently conducted an experiment that demonstrated how we become more susceptible to peer pressure from social media. The study they devised showed that users tended to change their opinion about a given item after it was revealed that a certain number of people actually “liked” the opposite of their choice. The shocking part of the study is that it only took a few “opposite likes” for the change to occur.

3. Social media hurts your confidence and self-esteem.

Hanna Krasnova of the Institute of Information Systems at Humboldt-Universität in Berlin led a series of studies that analyzed the role of Facebook on certain human emotions. The studies found that following other people on Facebook and monitoring their posts leads to feelings of envy among a significant percentage of users. Even worse is that over a long period of time, this envy leads to “frustration and exhaustion,” which damaged the subjects’ overall satisfaction with their lives.

4. Social media subverts critical thinking.

Author David Rusak, in writing for the Walrus Foundation of Canada, discusses how conversation and critical thought are destroyed in social media communications. Rather than develop original thoughts, people simply “like,” “retweet” or “share” something that someone else wrote. When it does come time to communicate an original thought, it's limited to 140 characters on Twitter or a few short paragraphs in a Facebook comment. Making matters worse is the lack of consequences due to anonymity. Just read the comments of a popular blog and see how many people are reduced to their most basic selves in the comment section.

What This Means For You

For small-business owners, losing the above skills and traits is a recipe for disaster. A sharp memory is critical for negotiations. Resisting peer pressure is necessary when launching a business and your risk-averse friends and relatives tell you it’s a bad idea. Maintaining your self-confidence in the face of adversity and setbacks is a basic trait of all successful entrepreneurs. Critical thinking skills are required to identify key trends, make good human resources decisions, sell to customers, manage operations and make strategic decisions. You would have to be among the luckiest people on earth to lose all these skills and traits and still succeed in business. So how can you retain your edge, and keep your skills sharp?

Change your behavior when it comes to social media to minimize its negative effects on your life. Limit social media use to a specific daily window. For many people, social media is a “gap filler.” Whenever you have a few minutes of downtime between emails or if you're standing in line, it's considered ideal to stare at your screen. That behavior has to go. Schedule your social media time just like you would any other appointment. This will be harder to achieve than you think, especially if you're already experiencing "Internet Addiction Disorder." Consider getting help from software like Rescue Time, Minutes Please or Facebook Limiter to help you pull it off.

Also, make one additional phone call per day and meet one more person each week. It's time you start building up your ability to communicate on the phone and in person again. Make one extra call each day before leaving work or in the morning. It could be personal or business related. The idea is to practice spontaneous, unscripted dialogue. One extra weekly meeting will also help re-orient you to the social cues of nonverbal communication and conversational context, which we lose with social media.

Dump your smartphone. If you really can’t control yourself, then turn off your smartphone for one month and use a cheap pay-as-you-go phone that can only make and receive phone calls. This will force you to go on a social media diet, save you money and provide an important lesson. You'll realize that not having instant data-access via a smartphone isn't the end of the world, or your business.

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