Does Social Media Make Us Dumber?

By: Elka Wiesenberg  |  April 19, 2018

I’m Sorry, But My Attention Span Is Too Short To–Haha, check out this meme.

Wait, what was I saying? Sorry, I was scrolling through my Insta feed while doing this. Oh, right, social media. That’s what I wanted to discuss here.

A discussion has been circulating the media for several months: Do smartphones and social media have a negative impact on our lives? We’ve reached a point in society where smartphones are basically extensions of ourselves. I’d sooner leave the house without my left arm than my iPhone, if the former weren’t attached to my body.

It’s becoming increasingly harder to have a conversation with a friend, family member, or significant other that doesn’t involve at least one screen glowing in someone’s face. Boredom during business meetings is now alleviated by simply tuning out with technology. And forget trying to run a classroom without the subtle or not-so-subtle tapping of students’ fingers as they scroll through social media throughout every lecture.

Despite all the distraction, life goes on. For the most part, we must have gotten pretty good at multitasking; relationships are still developed, workplaces are still run, and classes are still passed sometimes, even with the distraction of social media. So is the ever-presence of smartphones, and all the apps downloaded onto them, really that bad?

My high school had a policy that all cell phones needed to be handed into the front office before the first bell rang each morning, and they were collected as students filed out at the end of each day. Individual wooden jail cells were built for each girl’s phone, labeled neatly with her name, and few dared to violate the routinely enforced cell phone rules.

Even without the availability of social media, I was always an easily-distracted  student. When my classes got boring, I would take out a special notebook and just write. Over the course of high school, with my phone safely jailed away from 8:15 AM to 5:22 PM, I completed an entire novel, got halfway through seven more, and started countless others.

I used boredom to fuel my creativity.

Because writing was all-consuming, however, I knew that I could only focus on one thing at a time. I didn’t pretend I was paying attention in class while I was writing; I knew that one or the other held the whole of my notice.

In college, my cell phone usage is now up to my own discretion. Last year, I was studying abroad where I wasn’t allowed a laptop in class, and it was a struggle to keep my phone in my bag. Now, with my laptop open in most classes for text sources and note-taking, the concept of school without social media doesn’t stand a chance.

While I’m trying to focus in class, my eyes drift to the tantalizing tab open to Twitter. When I’m out with my friends, I feel the constant buzzing of new Snapchats. When I sit down to do my homework, one hand curls around my phone, ready to be torn from my studies by texts and Whatsapps.

I’m not paying attention, and I’m not even being creatively productive while I “multitask” through my day. Nothing is getting done.

Studies show a strong correlation between increased screen time and diminished attention. A 2011 article by Perri Klass for the New York Times, discusses the possible effects of the stimulants from playing video games and watching TV on attention deficiency. These studies are published routinely, but people rarely take them seriously.

What can we do to decrease our screen time and increase our productivity?

A friend of mine recently told me that she turned off all social media notifications, so that her phone doesn’t ping to demand her attention throughout the day. This way, she only checks her apps when she has time, after the day’s work is done. Though I definitely have too much FOMO to attain this level of self-control, it is an excellent idea for keeping virtual and IRL worlds separate.

I’m still trying to find my own perfect solution to this much-discussed problem of spending too much time on social media. For now though, I think that continuing this discussion is important, so that we don’t forget that it is a problem, whether or not we like to admit it to ourselves.