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Does social media make us smarter?
Turns out there are some benefits to shrinking your attention span to nothing
Texting her way to a higher IQ.
Texting her way to a higher IQ. (Courtesy Shutterstock)
O

n any given day, the average American teenager spends more than 7.5 hours online and uses his or her cellphone 60 times. While these numbers strike fear in the hearts of parents and crotchety novelists lamenting the loss of a more meaningful existence, there are some real benefits to a technology-saturated life: Young people spend far more time consuming new information, honing verbal concision, and interacting with a diverse audience than they have at any point in history.

Social media might render us mean and unhappy, but it also makes us more intelligent, according to a new study. Research suggests social media can improve verbal, research, and critical-thinking skills, despite popular concern about the damaging effects of the internet on impressionable youths.

Stanford professor Andrea Lunsford collected 877 freshman composition papers from 1917 to 2006 to study the ways technological advances have changed the quality of writing. Often the biggest complaint about "digital natives" is lazy prose — a tendency to use abbreviations and poor grammar — but Lunsford's research suggests that's a myth. She discovered there was virtually no change in the number of errors in composition papers over the past century. She also found that by 2006, papers were six times longer, more thoroughly researched, and more complex than those written in 1917.

"Student writers today are tackling the kinds of issues that require inquiry and investigation as well as reflection," Lunsford told The Globe and Mail.

Of course, major advances in education over the past century need to be accounted for when reviewing Lunsford's findings. But there is one change inextricably tied to social media: Young people spend far more time writing outside the classroom than ever before. They spend hours on extracurricular composition in the form of tweets, texts, emails, comments, photo captions, and discussion boards.

It's easy to write this off as meaningless chatter and narcissistic navel-gazing, but Lunsford's findings suggest it does influence quality of writing. Sites with character counts, like Twitter, are particularly beneficial because they teach users to be economical with language.

Digital connectedness can also provide students with a greater sense of purpose in their work. Writing for an engaged, responsive audience often motivates people to make their work more compelling, even if they're just composing a 140-character tweet.

Clive Thompson, author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better, explains why this wide range of readers is beneficial:

One good example is allowing children to write for this incredible, global audience. When kids are writing a paper for a teacher, they sort of don't care, because they know the teacher doesn't care, they are being paid to read this, it's just an assignment and a grade. But as soon as you connect them with an authentic audience, the same way adults do on blogs and Twitter, the kids completely throw themselves into the work.

Once they saw their first comment from someone outside the classroom, their entire world shifted, because they understand they are thinking publicly, and that catalyzes them to produce something better. They go over their work and ask others to critique it before posting. Teachers who had struggled to get kids to write a two-page book report suddenly found they would willingly compose a painstakingly researched 35,000 word walk-through of their favorite video game. [The Verge]

That's not to say social media doesn't have negative effects. Even Thompson and Lunsford recognize that the impact of technology on young minds is complicated. One clear casualty of the digital revolution is our attention spans. Ten years ago the average attention span was 12 minutes. In just a decade it's been reduced to five seconds.

"The distraction issue is real and significant, you can't get certain types of important thinking and work done if you're constantly darting around from one thing to another," Thompson told The Verge. "The problem is, we currently have this information ecology that has been designed to capture as much of your attention as possible."

Research also suggests that Facebook can contribute to feelings of sadness and dissatisfaction. But these symptoms of social media, while unfortunate, are not inconsistent with Lunsford's and Thompson's findings. After all, if history is any indicator, unhappiness and intelligence are not mutually exclusive.

Monica Nickelsburg is a digital producer for TheWeek.com. She has previously worked for Transient Pictures, The Daily Beast, NBC, and Forbes. Follow her @mnickelsburg.

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