Imagine yourself at a party, enjoying drinks with your friends. You are having a great time and decide to snap a picture and post it on Instagram. This will surely help you remember this moment, right? Well, it might, but it will also alter your experience.
Every day, millions of people document and share their experiences on social media, posting about their friends, families, food choices and recent travels. Indeed, saving these moments for ourselves and sharing them with others has become increasingly important, paving the way for new ways of communication and social connection. Interestingly, engaging in this type of behavior may have several perks, as it seems to improve people’s mood and also foster interpersonal benefits, such as the development of trust and a more prosocial orientation towards others. However, recent studies suggest that the very act of documenting and sharing moments may actually alter our memories of these experiences. Does the use of social media ironically prevent us from remembering the moments we try to preserve? In other words, should or shouldn’t we post pictures of our experiences to memorize them?
Does social media use affect memory?
In a series of three studies, American researchers have demonstrated that taking pictures and videos for social media use can impair people’s memories. Participants were asked to watch a TED talk (study 1) or go on self-guided tours of a church on Stanford University’s campus (studies 2 and 3). During these activities, they were asked to record their experience in various ways, including by writing down their thoughts and experiences (either for personal use, sharing purposes or with no specific purpose), by reflecting on these aspects internally, or by describing their physical environment (to distract them from the experience). Across studies, media use resulted in impaired memory for the events, irrespective of whether the recordings would be preserved or shared with others.
Your camera as an external memory device
What is the likely culprit of this media-use induced memory impairment? Based on the aforementioned findings, some researchers believe that the impairment may occur while recording the event. This idea is in line with several studies on the so-called photo-taking-impairment effect (i.e., taking pictures impairs memories). A common explanation for this effect is based on the idea of transactive memory, where the burden of remembering something is shared among several people, or in this case, between a person and a camera. In a recent set of studies, researchers of the University of California tested this offloading hypothesis. Camera use resulted in impaired memories, regardless of whether participants believed that they could use their camera as transactive memory partner. As such, these results suggest that the offloading hypothesis may not (fully) explain media-use induced memory impairment.
Your camera as a visual spotlight
An alternative explanation holds that recording an event may either disengage or distract people from the experience, or primarily focuses their attention on specific aspects of the experience. In both cases, this causes people to process the experience differently. Although this idea requires further testing, some preliminary evidence supports the hypothesis. A group of researchers from the United States showed that taking pictures (which is an visually-oriented activity) led participants to attend to visual rather than auditory aspects of their experiences. Visual memory proved particularly strong for the photographed aspects of the experience. As such, this study suggests that recording an event may actually even boost our memories, albeit in a biased fashion.
Now that we know about the possible effects of media use on our memories, should you still post pictures of that epic party to your Instagram stories? If you aim to experience it on as many levels as possible, it is probably best if you don’t. On the other hand, taking pictures and sharing them may help you focus on the aspects of an experience that are particularly important or salient to you. Moreover, it allows you to revisit (the photographed details of) the experience, which may ultimately result in an even better (but also more biased) memory. So if you want to record and share something on social media, make sure that you capture what you want to remember!
This blog was featured on the Leiden Psychology Blog in September 2018.