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Can Twitter and YouTube make you stupid?

October 13, 2009 3 comments

Can watching YouTube make you stupid? Maybe. The latest research indicates that while watching YouTube clips and sharing them on Twitter might be fun, it makes no improvement at all to our working memory.

Working memory is our ability to store and manipulate information for a brief time. It is typically measured by dual-tasks, where the individual has to remember an item while simultaneously processing a sometimes unrelated piece of information. In other words, working memory helps us multi-task and learn new stuff. It’s our mental sticky-note and explains why it is easier to do two different tasks (one verbal and one visual) than two similar tasks (e.g., two visual)

Working memory predicts learning outcomes independently of IQ. It’s important because working memory measures our capacity to acquire knowledge rather than simply remember what we have already learned.

A British researcher, Dr Alloway states that short form communication such as Twitter is harming our ability to remember. She describes Twitter as an “endless stream” that doesn’t allow users to process or manipulate what they’re seeing. “It’s not a dialogue,” reports Dr Alloway who is the Director of the Center for Memory and Learning at the University of Stirling. She had the same judgement for YouTube. She claimed children who watch too much TV and videos are more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. “A TV programme may be 30 minutes long. A YouTube clip is only a minute or so – your attention span is being reduced and you’re not really engaging your brain and developing your neural connections to engage on a longer basis,” she said. It’s not all bad news, however. Other forms of communication, such as Facebook, might be helping to train our brains.

“Social networking sites like Facebook might help working memory, because when we use them we feel more part of a larger community,” Alloway claims.

So, if you want to get smarter, don’t tweet. Try a little socializing on Facebook, play Sudoku, or blog.