November 2014, Volume 3 Issue 3

Interruptive Facebook Use Significantly Worsens Working Memory in a Digitally Enriched Learning Environment

Laela Zaidi1* and Nathan Mutic2
Student1, Teacher2: Joplin High School, 101 N. Rangeline Road Building D, Joplin, MO, 64804
*Corresponding author:


Understanding the complex relationships between media distractions and learning is critical as educators navigate how to prepare students in a 21st century learning environment. The present study investigates the relationships between self-esteem, intensity of Facebook use, and working memory. This study was specifically designed to emulate distracting situations students face while studying and simultaneously having immediate access to social media. We predicted that viewing one’s own Facebook profile  (FBP) would result in significantly worse working memory performance than viewing one’s friends’ Facebook profiles. Additionally, we hypothesized that frequent and intense Facebook usage as well as self-esteem would predict performance for the treatment groups. The participants were high school students ranging in age from 16 to 18. Participants completed the Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale to determine their explicit self-esteem and then studied 24 four-letter words for three minutes. Participants immediately recalled these words, and were randomly assigned to one of three activities: viewing their personal Facebook profile, viewing their friends’ profiles, or surfing the Internet. After five minutes, participants recalled words from the first exercise. The percent difference from the first and second recall was recorded. Participants completed a Facebook intensity usage survey after experimentation that measured intensity of Facebook use and emotional connectedness to Facebook. A one-way ANOVA between testing groups elucidated a significant difference between testing groups (p = 0.0312). Post comparison using the Tukey HSD test indicated the mean percent difference for the Facebook Friend group (M = -0.0801, SD = 0.1157) was significantly different from the Facebook Profile group (M = -0.2355, SD = 0.1287). Facebook intensity predicted participant’s second recall scores in the Facebook friends profile group (R2 = 0.2993, p = 0.0348, ϐ = 0.5717).


Over the past two decades, a substantial amount of research across a variety of disciplines has emerged which examines issues of multitasking and distraction.  Cognitive scientists are increasingly focusing on assessing how humans are coping with their digital habits and multitasking. More specifically, researchers are attempting to understand how younger people are being impacted by their lifestyles of “chronic multitasking” and if these habits influence our capacity to function effectively.1

Managing two or more tasks at once requires a great deal of attention. People often experience performance decrements when multitasking since both tasks are competing for limited attention resources. As a result, task quality and efficiency suffer. A Stanford University study, for example, found that heavy media multitaskers have less cognitive control and ability to process information compared to light media multitaskers. The researchers noted, “the norm of multiple input streams will have significant consequences for learning, persuasion, and other media effects.”1

Social Networking and Distractions. Recently, researchers have become far more interested in assessing the multitasking habits of younger persons- the so-called “Net Generation” or “digital natives”. A study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found 31% of students ages 8-18 years old distract themselves with television, texting, or listening to music “most of the time” while doing homework.2 Another observational study had researchers observe middle, high school, and university students studying for fifteen minutes within their homes. Observers noted technologies present and computer windows open in the learning environment. Participants averaged less than six minutes on task prior to switching, most often due to technological distractions including social media and texting.3

One of the most popular ways in which young people use media distractions is through social networking sites. Social networking websites are a particularly relevant to this issue as they are widely popular among youth. Nearly 95% of all teens (ages 12 – 17) have profiles on the popular social networking site, Facebook.3

However, it is important to note that social networking is not entirely correlated with inattention and thus poor grades.  One observational study found that time spent on Facebook was strongly and negatively related to overall GPA. However, the study also found that specific Facebook activities are related to both positive and negative outcomes. Collecting and sharing information (checking to see what friends are up to and sharing links) is more positively predicted of GPA than using Facebook for socializing (status updates and chatting).4

Social networking and psychological well-being.  Another dimension of social media research is the link between social networking sites and psychological well-being. Some research implies online social network use is positively associated with self-esteem4, yet other studies reveal the opposite. One study found that daily Facebook use leads to negative shifts in long-term life satisfaction among college students.5  Moreover, Facebook use itself can contribute to the severity of symptoms associated with Internet addiction, which can lead to increased symptoms of attention deficit hyperactive disorder, loneliness, and depression.6 These findings leave unanswered questions about how much Facebook’s impact on psychological well-being impairs cognitive abilities.

However, other research has indicated that the context of Facebook usage determines the psychological and cognitive impact on the individual. Facebook use has been found to increase “social capital” and connectedness, indicating that it might benefit users with low self-esteem.7 Another study found that when individuals viewed their own Facebook profile, their self-esteem was affirmed in a way that decreased their performance on a cognitive test more than individuals who viewed their friend’s profiles. This indicates short-term increases in self-esteem deplete the users’ motivation to complete a rigorous task.8

Although Facebook is regarded as an essentially distracting social media tool that can hinder academic performance, it also provides users with a set of benefits, including, among other things, increased social capital. The effects of social media on learning in a digitally enriched learning environment are currently understudied. The present study investigates how using Facebook as a distraction affects psychological well-being and working memory performance. The participants were recruited from a high school in which every student is provided a personal laptop, otherwise known as a 1:1 learning environment.  This is critical, as many educators believe that today’s students have adjusted to media distractions and will no longer experience its ill effects. Moreover, this study will add to the landscape of research within media distractions, as it measures how certain types of Facebook use, such as viewing one’s own profile versus the profiles of their friends, affects working memory and learning. Additionally, this study will investigate whether self-esteem or intensity of Facebook use can predict performance for treatment groups.

Materials and Methods

The participants in this study were juniors and seniors attending a Midwestern high school. Ages ranged from 16-18 years old. The participants are part of a “one to one” learning environment, meaning that they use school-provided laptops throughout the school day and complete assignments on them. Twenty-six females and sixteen males participated in the study. Relevant institutional review boards reviewed and approved the experimental protocol (Figure 1A).  Appropriate informed consent was obtained from all subjects represented in the study. The study was completed on a confidential, Google Drive form (an online data collection and storage tool). Subjects first completed the Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale9, a widely used self-esteem measure and then studied 24 four-letter words for three minutes (Figure 2B). Subjects were given two minutes to recall these words. Then, participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups: viewing their personal Facebook profile (FBP), viewing their friends’ profiles (FBF), or surfing the internet (IU). Participants did one of these activities for five minutes. Next, subjects were instructed to recall as many words as possible from the first exercise. The percentage difference in words memorized between the first recall and the second recall were recorded. At the end of experimentation, participants completed a Facebook intensity usage survey adapted from a previous study.8 This measure, known as the “Facebook intensity scale” asked subjects to report their number of Facebook “friends” and the amount of time spent on Facebook on a typical day. The measure also includes attitudinal questions designed to measure the extent participants are emotionally connected to Facebook and the extent to which Facebook is integrated into their daily activities.


facebook protocol

Figure 1. A) Protocol diagram. B) 24 randomly chosen four-letter words used for the memory test.


Working Memory. The percentage difference between the first and second recall was calculated and analyzed between the testing groups (Fig 2). A one-way ANOVA was used to compare the means percentage difference for all groups, which showed a statistically significant p-value (p = 0.0312). A Tukey mean comparison test found statistically significant means between FBP (M = -0.2355, SD = 0.1287) and FBF (M = -0.0801, SD = 0.1157).


facebook recall

Figure 2. Percent difference in first and second recall for all treatment groups. P-value from one-way ANOVA was significant (p<.05). This figure shows significant means from Tukey test between FBP(M = -0.2355, SD = 0.1287) and FBF (M = -0.0801, SD = 0.1157).


Facebook Intensity. The relationship between the Facebook intensity scale and recall scores was analyzed using linear regressions (Fig 3). This was done in order to determine if Facebook intensity was predictive of recall scores. Facebook intensity was not associated with total recall scores in the entire sample. Further analysis found no significant relationship for FBP and IU group. In the FBF group (Fig 3, B), the Facebook intensity scale predicted increased recall scores (p = 0.0348, ϐ = 0.5717, R2 = 0.2993).


facebook intensity

Figure 3. A) Linear regression of all participants Facebook intensity scores and total recall score. B) Linear regression of FBF intensity scores and total recall score. R2=0.2993.  ϐ = 0.5717. C) Linear regression of FBP group intensity scores and total recall score. D) Linear regression of IU group intensity scores and total recall score.


Self-esteem. Linear regression was also used to determine if self-esteem could predict recall scores (Fig 4). The slope for the regression was not significant for the total recall scores and self-esteem, nor for the FBF or FBP. There was a trend association between self-esteem in the IU group (Fig 4, D), but it did not reach statistical significance (p = 0.09).


rosenberg self-esteem

Figure 4. A) Linear regression of all participants Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale score and total recall score. B) Linear regression of FBP self-esteem scores and total recall score. C) Linear regression of FBF self-esteem scores and total recall score. D) Linear regression of IU self-esteem score and total recall score.


Summary and rationale of results. Adolescents are increasingly using social media as a way to distract themselves while studying. However, social media poses both benefits and disadvantages depending on how it is used and in what context. Therefore, it is important that educators and students be aware of the implications of media distractions. The present study aimed to evaluate the effects of interruptive Facebook use on working memory among high school teenagers in the 1:1 learning environment. We hypothesized that viewing one’s own Facebook profile would be more detrimental than viewing friends’ Facebook profiles. Additionally, we hypothesized that participants who surfed the Internet without social media use would perform better than both Facebook groups. The study also aimed to determine whether self-esteem or intensity of Facebook use could predict performance. 

A one-way ANOVA found statistically significant differences between the mean percentage differences in first and second recall for treatment groups. The FBP group did significantly worse than the FBF group in working memory performance. This affirms our hypothesis that the FBP group would perform worse than the FBF group. However, the Internet usage group did not have a significant mean difference. The results between the FBP and FBF group are consistent with previous research which has found that using Facebook in a self-affirming way (viewing one’s own profile) interferes with cognitive processes.8 The results of this study suggest the self-affirmation effects of viewing one’s Facebook profile impede working memory even among students who are accustomed to media distractions in the 1:1 learning environment.

Results from linear regressions showed that FBF performance scores were positively related to intensity of Facebook use. This relationship further reflects that individuals who use Facebook frequently and intensely are more sensitive to the positive cognitive effects associated with looking at other’s Facebook profiles. Interestingly, these positive effects were not observed when individuals were interrupted with a self-evaluative distraction in the FBP group.

The results of this study are relevant to the landscape of educational research and theory used to train the next generation of teachers. Moreover, these findings have immediate implications for the studying habits of students and how teachers approach instruction. Both students and teachers can benefit from a better understanding of the role of social media as a distractor. 

Strengths and limitations. A number of strengths enhance our confidence in the results of this study. One of the most important design models is the comparison of performance in the ANOVA using percentage difference in first and second recall. This allowed participants to be compared against themselves. Moreover, we used proper statistical analysis and randomized assignment.

Despite our strengths, we were limited by our use of explicit self-esteem measures. Although the Rosenberg Self-esteem scale is accurate, implicit self-esteem measures are preferred since they are self-evaluative in an unconscious manner. Additional forms of measuring memory, such as remembering verbal instructions or visual images, could also have been utilized to increase confidence in the observed effects of Facebook usage.

Future studies should evaluate differences in male and female performance. This study did not have enough participants to accurately conduct statistical comparisons across gender. This is an important consideration because females and males have been shown to have different emotional connectivity to Facebook.10

Researchers who study this topic should address the effects of other types of social media usage on working memory. Further research should more clearly differentiate self-evaluative social media measures, such as viewing one’s own pictures or content, versus usage that allows people to connect, such as posting on someone else’s social media pages. This type of research could further elucidate the effects of social media multitasking.


1. Ophira, Eyal; Nass, Clifford; Wagner, Anthony D. “Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers,” PNAS: Proceedings in the National Academy of Sciences, August 24, 2009.

2. Rideout, Victoria J., M.A, Ulla G. Foehr, Ph.D., and Donald F. Roberts, Ph.D. "Generation M2: Media In The Lives of 8-to-18 Year Olds." Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation (2010): n. pag. Web.

3. Rosen, Larry D., L. Mark Carrier, and Nancy A. Cheever. "Facebook and Texting Made Me Do It: Media-induced Task-switching While Studying." Computers in Human Behavior 29.3 (2013): 948-58. Print.

4. Junco, Reynol. "Too Much Face and Not Enough Books: The Relationship between Multiple Indices of Facebook Use and Academic Performance." Computers in Human Behavior 28.1 (2012): 187-98. Print.

5. Kross, Ethan, Philippe Verduyn, Emre Demiralp, Jiyoung Park, David Seungjae Lee, Natalie Lin, Holly Shablack, John Jonides, and Oscar Ybarra. "Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults." PLoS ONE 8.8 (2013): n. pag. Web.

6. Fioravanti, Giulia, Ph.D., Davide Dèttore, Ph.D., and Silvia Casale, Ph.D. "Adolescent Internet Addiction: Testing the Association Between Self-Esteem, the Perception of Internet Attributes, and Preference for Online Social Interaction."

7.  Ellison, Nicole B., Charles Steinfield, and Cliff Lampe. "The Benefits of Facebook “Friends:” Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites." Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 12.4 (2007): 1143-168.

8. Toma, Catalin L. "Feeling Better But Doing Worse: Effects of Facebook Self-Presentation on Implicit Self-Esteem and Cognitive Task Performance." Media Psychology 16.2 (2013): 199-200. Web. 22 Sept. 2013.

9. Rosenberg, M. (1965). Society and the adolescent self-image. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

10. Fioravanti, Giulia, Ph.D., Davide Dèttore, Ph.D., and Silvia Casale, Ph.D. "Adolescent Internet Addiction: Testing the Association Between Self-Esteem, the Perception of Internet Attributes, and Preference for Online Social Interaction." Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 15.6 (2012): 318-23.

Supplementary Data

Raw data. Yellow indicates control group, blue indicates FBP group, red indicates FBF group.