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Stolen Moments: How Social Media is Ruining our Memories

Posted on Thursday, June 27, 2019 and filed under

Have you ever gone to a Starbucks and taken a picture of your Pumpkin Spiced Latte? Are you guilty of those traffic-grams? Have you ever seen a live concert through your phone while the artist was playing a few feet away from you?

Social media is credited for a lot of things – including anxiety, trolling, body image issues, and narcissism. Recent studies have shown that social media is capable of doing our brain even more damage. Our constant need to upload our pictures and videos on social media is ruining our memories.

Uploading these pictures isn’t only disconnecting us from the real moment but is playing with our brain. We hardly remember the things we put up on social media. However, whenever an old picture pops up, the only things we remember are the ones we didn’t capture with our phone.

Every memory is birthed with your perception. Your brain registers what it sees, hears, smells, and touches. The sensations can be anything from eating spicy food to kissing your significant other. After registering, the brain sends these signals to the hippocampus to see if they can serve as long-term memory.

Understanding what Long-Term Memory Is

Long-Term memory is based on three factors: repetition, familiarity, and emotional arousal. James L. McGaugh’s 2013 study titled “Making Lasting Memories: Remembering the Significant” talks about the role of emotional arousal in memory. It explains that emotional arousal simulates amygdala which releases stress hormones.

Amygdala is responsible for one’s emotions, survival instincts, and their memories. The stress hormones are released as responses to a stressful or exciting situation. Therefore, emotional arousal’s simulation of amygdala makes the memory more likely to stay in your head for a long time.

The study is now more relevant than ever because technology has made us incapable of being emotionally attached to our experiences. Our brain registers the things we experience as there’s always a phone capturing that moment. Since our sensory organs aren’t in direct contact with the subject, our brain doesn’t register it well. There is hardly any emotional arousal leading to a short-term memory of an important moment.

Personalization Seems to be The Focus

It’s due to this that now, social media is focused on making the user experience more personal. A few years ago, networking websites like Vine and Tumblr were getting significant engagement. However, the impersonal experience of the applications and the lack of foresight meant the engagement didn’t last. On the other hand, Instagram and Facebook saw a lot of opportunities in increasing the time users spend on their applications.

Snapchat brought stories for its users that would vanish in 24 hours. It helped users post a lot more personal and candid content, the kind they believed had temporary nature. Instagram saw an opportunity and launched its own stories as well. The users were skeptical of the format initially but warmed up to it soon. The monthly active users of the app shot from 500 million to 700 million months after stories were introduced. This also doubled the annual growth rate of the app in eight months.

How Real Is It?

The stories are rawer and more real as compared to the pictures posted on Instagram. They give others a glimpse into one’s daily life and play well with short-term memory. However, the temporary nature of it further ruins our memory as we continuously forget important events. We post several stories of the concert we’re at but are unable to remember the songs the band played.

We post sunset pictures of a weekend beach trip, but only remember the time we spent with our friends. The format of stories has not only made our memories weaker; it also puts pressure on us to post more often. While we wish to keep our phone in our pockets, everyone’s capturing their band singing their favorite song. While we want to enjoy these moments, we feel disconnected the moment we put our phones down.

Julia Soares and Benjamin Storm’s paper “Forget in a Flash: A Further Investigation of the Photo Taking Impairment Effect” talks about this. The research suggests that when we click pictures from our phone, we disengage ourselves from the moment and want to capture the experience. We decide upon the angle, the light, and want it to look as perfect as possible. Thus, we aren’t affected by memory deeply.

However, this has less to do with the camera and more with the attention one gives to social media. People are disengaged from the moment even after they’ve put the camera down. The presence of filters and the urgency to upload a video or a picture at the very second makes the memory even fainter in our minds. The phenomenon is known as “attentional disengagement.” This is because one is focusing their attention on the phone to capture the experience while disengaging from the actual event. The study, along with the finding of McGaugh explains how these stories can affect an entire generation. Stories on platforms like Instagram and Snapchat impact one’s ability to stay present at the moment and stay engaged. They also affect the formation process of one’s memories as well.

The Need to Be Updated, Always

It is also getting increasingly difficult to disconnect from this environment. There’s a constant pressure to keep updating and stay updated as well. We, as victims, understand the problem but can’t help ourselves from going back to these platforms. We’d continuously refresh our Twitter for news, check our Facebook timeline for life updates, and Instagram for travel pictures. We’d upload stories to let people know where you are and what you’re doing. The act makes us feel that we’re not giving ourselves enough time and attention, yet looks like a social engagement we can’t get out of.

But memory retention against social media engagement is also dependent on the intent. If a photograph or a video was taken for memory’s sake, chances are that one will remember it a little longer. Interrupting a moment due to social media use is the crux of the memory-impairment effect. However, ongoing research is trying to prove that the stronger the intent of a person, the longer a picture stays in their memory. However, the more one wants to click a picture for their social media, the more negatively they remember the moment.

So, the next time you take your phone out to live tweet a movie or capture a sunset, remember that it can hurt your experience. The use of our social media should be judicious because a great picture means nothing if there’s no story behind it. Sometimes, it’s better to sit back, relax, and enjoy the moment.