Drugs aren’t the only thing that can addle our brains. New research confirms what your brain may feel following a long, uncontrolled binge through the depths of your social media feeds: The content we devour on the internet really can have a lasting effect on our cognitive abilities. At least, so says a new study published by the International Journal of Business Administration this May.
This is by no means a new hypothesis—New York Times best-selling author Nicholas Carr has argued that the world wide web can erode our intelligence many times, and many ways. But this study suggests it may not be the screen time that’s at fault for lessened abilities—it’s the low quality of most online content. The IJBA study suggests that people who read more low-quality content had lower sophistication, syntax, cadence, and rhythm in their own writing.
In order to conduct the study, researchers collected writing samples from 65 participants between the ages of 23 and 42. Those individuals then self-reported their reading habits as well as what they spent the most time consuming in terms of books, newspapers, and websites. The information was then run through an algorithm-based complexity measurement tool, which matched the quality of the written samples against samples from the sources that the participants said they frequently read. The data suggested a strong correlation between reading and writing skills—meaning, people who read more complex stories had more complex writing, and vice versa. Of course, this study is only suggesting a correlation between these two things—it’s not necessarily clear that one causes the other.
But considering the reading choices of the participants with the worst writing caused the researchers to lay the blame for poor syntax squarely on the shoulders of millennial-focused content aggregators, websites that pride themselves on providing quick hits of information rather than nuanced and thoughtful writing.
“If you spend all your time reading Reddit, your writing is going to go to hell in a handcart,” said Yellowlees Douglas, an associate professor at the University of Florida and one of the study’s authors, to the Boston Globe. While it’s perhaps a bit of an overstatement—relax, you can totally still look at a few memes at lunchtime!—overexposure to articles filled with slang and shorthand might, over time, be a serious deterrent to your own ability to compose complex sentences.
If you really can’t resist, all is not lost. The authors prescribe a heavy dose of literary fiction or academic journals as a countermeasure to fight the mental fatigue of listicles and tweetstorms and their super-ultra-meta offspring. But the overall message is especially important when considered within the context of the ever-evolving arena of social media—the more time spent ingesting ready-made content, the easier it becomes to mimic what you’ve consumed.
The problem is that content is increasingly so digestible. Take, for example, digital publisher Fusion’s newest offering: a Facebook Messenger chatbot Emoji News—an automated system that sends you the news explained via emoji directly to your Facebook messages inbox. Fusion’s news director, Kevin Roose, explained the development to Digiday in the most basic terms: “A lot of the news bots out there are basically RSS feeds—just pushing headlines on an automated basis with no real voice behind it. But when ‘Lemonade’ comes out, you don’t text ‘Beyoncé just released an album called Lemonade,’ you send an emoji of a bee and an emoji of a lemon.” The chatbot is charming, innovative, and incredibly amusing, and it will probably up your emoji game. It may just also dumb down your writing.
It’s important to say that this study in no way suggests that you can’t enjoy the simplicity of a message that doesn’t require unpacking on an analytical level—just think of those as the candy to what should be a well-rounded meal that contains plenty of protein, er, long-form. It can be a tough balance to reach when the number of outlets providing light fluff seems to constantly grow, and their content constantly tops your social feeds, but it’s worth it.
So the next time you spend five minutes scrolling through the “33 Dogs That Cannot Even Handle it Right Now,” take another five minutes to read something outside of your comfort zone, something that you actually have to read—not skim—to understand. Your co-workers, family members, and virtually all future recipients of your email missives may thank you for it.