Moments, interrupted: how social media is ruining our memories

Constantly taking photos? Guilty of that traffic-jam 'gram? Already forgotten what you did last weekend? If you answered yes to those questions, you need to read this...
Moments, interrupted: how social media is ruining our memories
We hate being behind this guy at concerts

We’re constantly reminded of the negative effects social media has on our lives – including our self-confidence, body image, mental health and perceptions of beauty. However, new research has shown that social media could be permanently damaging something else – our memories.

To create a memory, your brain must register visual, auditory and olfactory senses to send the information to the hippocampus, which will decide if it’ll be stored. Still with us? The amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for emotions) then releases hormones so that these experiences can be encoded as long-term memories, as they’re more likely to make the cut if you’re in a heightened physiological state, or if they're familiar – like your route home or the smell of your nan’s perfume.

Social media is interrupting this process as we’re literally putting a screen between us and the event, which stops the emotional connection, and means the memory isn’t stored as deeply as it should be. Research suggests that this attentional disengagement, also known as the photo-taking-impairment effect, is to blame – the disengagement not only impairs immediate memory formation, but it can even stop the formation of the memory after the photo has been taken (since you’re so busy sharing it on your social media platforms). 

This phenomena is similar to cognitive uploading – a process in which people store their memories on an external memory source, like a phone or camera, rather than personally retaining them. Have you ever forgotten an event until a photo jogged your memory? Yep, you’re guilty of cognitive offloading.

While it may seem obvious that you’re less likely to remember events you photograph rather than those you observe, it’s alarming when you think of the milestones you may have missed because you were experiencing them through your phone – like a friend’s proposal or your child’s first steps.

The release of ‘stories’ on Instagram and Snapchat are making matters worse. The feature allows real-time updates and glimpses into everyday life – from morning coffees to gym routines, bath time to traffic jams, we see almost every aspect of people’s lives. Is society to blame for our constant posts? In such a fast-paced digital world, the pressure to keep up means we’ll never be able to completely ditch our social media. Not only is there pressure to stay relevant and stand out among the 700 million other monthly users, it’s almost necessary due to the amount of social media-related jobs – we bet you can't find someone that doesn’t have ‘content creator’ in their Instagram bio.

The scariest part? Photo-sharing apps could potentially be damaging an entire generation's ability to stay present and engaged, impacting that population's ability to form long-term memories (which could last for the rest of their lives). Yikes. It's not hard to believe when you consider their favourite apps post content no more than 10 seconds long. Remember Vine?

"How can we save our memories?!" we hear you scream. Well, intentionality is key. In other words, if you’re thoughtfully taking the photo for memory’s sake, you’ll remember the event better than if you're taking it to post online. So in the future, put your phone down and live in the moment -  you'll enjoy being able to tell the story later (with all the details you would have otherwise forgotten).

Photos: Unsplash and Instagram