Study: Tweeting and texting may befuddle your brain

The following article is reprinted from the Charlotte Observer (p. A1) on September 8, 2009, by Jeff Elder.

Study: Tweeting and texting may befuddle your brain    

Does Twitter make you dumber, and does Facebook make you smarter?

Not exactly, but the two social media sites affect the brain in opposite ways, a top researcher told the Observer on Monday after making headlines with a study she presented at a British conference.   Twitter’s truncated, grammatically incorrect messages train our brains to underperform, Dr. Tracy Alloway said in a phone interview. In contrast, the elaborate social connections of Facebook stimulate the brain.

“There’s a lot of evidence that some technology is good” for the brain, she said. “And some technology is bad for it.”

As winner of the prestigious Joseph Lister Award from the British Science Association, Alloway presented a study on technology’s impact on the brain at the British Science Festival on Sunday. Her research showed that students who took part in an elaborate memory game improved in academic and even IQ testing in just eight weeks. Intricate video games improve the brain’s performance as well, she said.

But students who spent a lot of time text messaging have been shown in tests to decline academically, she said.   That’s where she says the two very different social media sites come in.

Twitter is a messaging forum that limits users to just 140 characters. Facebook is a more elaborate social realm that allows users to use language more fully, and to use multimedia and applications to vary the user’s experience.

Alloway is an expert in “working memory” – the ability not just to recall, but to effectively use information. One key to that is using language creatively. For instance, experts say working crossword or Sudoku puzzles can stimulate the brain and lessen the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.   “With Twitter, the character restriction means you have to really restrict what you want to say,” she said. “Language isn’t meant to be used that way.”   But a variety of social connections, including the types people develop and maintain on Facebook, have been shown to help performance on the job.   “There’s a lot of great technology, but you’ve got to use language,” Alloway said. “Otherwise, the brain says, ‘I’m not using this, so…’”

Local academic John McArthur of Queens University of Charlotte said Twitter might get a bad rap in the media and in research circles.   “I think there is some negative attitude toward Twitter,” said McArthur, a communications professor and social media expert. He pointed out that Twitter can be used to send links to more thorough articles. “I don’t know that Twitter is meant to elicit deep thinking, but it can, if we connect it to other information on the Internet.”

And Alloway, who uses Facebook but not Twitter, allows that “there are always creative people” who might use Twitter poetically enough to grow their brains, 140 characters at a time.

Informed of Alloway’s opinions, Charlottean Jody Mace – who tweets under the name cltcheap – poetically tweeted Monday night:   “Twitter is concise, but also can be nice. It requires that your verse remain short and terse.”

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