Here's Why You Should Unplug While Watching Presidential Debates

All that retweeting isn't helping you learn anything about the candidates.
Do not live-tweet these things.
Justin Sullivan via Getty Images
Do not live-tweet these things.

If you're live-tweeting the presidential debates, you're doing it wrong, says a new study.

While watching the birth of election season hashtags in real time can be fascinating (remember #bindersfullofwomen?), people who engage on social media while watching presidential debates learn less about the candidates than those who stay off social networks while watching, according to a study published Tuesday in the journal Political Communication.

"If you want to learn as much as you can about the candidates’ stands, don’t simultaneously use social media,” said study author Bruce Hardy, an assistant professor in the department of strategic communication at Temple University, in a press release.

Even when controlling for differences in level of social media engagement between age groups and other varying demographics, social media use during debates appears to be a significant distraction.

That makes sense considering that when you multitask, your brain is actually rapidly toggling between tasks and depleting you of energy. And when you look at how high the stakes are in this election and how serious some of the candidates' threats are, fully grasping what presidential hopefuls stand for might be more important than ever.

Using social media while watching the 2012 debates was linked to lesser understanding of the candidates' stances.

The study, conducted by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, used data from the previous presidential election cycle. Researchers surveyed more than 3,600 adults in 2012 about their knowledge of topics discussed during second and third debates between President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Respondents were asked questions such as, "Which candidate has promised to increase military spending?" and "While in foreign countries, Barack Obama has repeatedly apologized for America. How accurate do you think that statement is?"

In the case of both debates, respondents who watched the entire broadcast while simultaneously engaging with social media answered fewer questions correctly than those who watched the entire debate without using social media.

"Those who watched all of the second presidential debate and reported following social media answered 4.6 percent more questions correctly than those who did not watch that debate, while those who watched all of the debate but were not following social media answered 9.2 percent more questions correctly than those who did not watch any of the debate," the study found.

The graph below shows how viewers' comprehension of the debate differed between social networking site (called SNS) users and non-users.

Political Communication

The study observed the same phenomenon with knowledge of the third debate. While those who watched the entire debate while following social media answered 8.9 percent more questions correctly than those who did not watch the debate at all, people who watched the entire broadcast without following any social networks answered 13.4 percent more questions than those who didn't tune in.

As seen in the graph for the third debate compared to the second debate, the "knowledge levels of both those who were multitasking and who were not increased," the study authors noted, but "those who were following others’ reactions or issuing their own on SNSs learned at a lower rate."

Political Communication

And if you think you already know which candidate you're voting for well enough to tweetstorm during the debate, think again. Social media use during the debate particularly distracted viewers from learning about their preferred candidate.

"Those who favored Obama tended to learn less about Obama," observed lead study author and Pew Research Center associate Jeffrey A. Gottfried, "and those who favored Romney tended to learn less about Romney than the candidates’ supporters who were watching the debate but not following social media."

Reconsidering gluing yourself to your newsfeed while watching the next broadcast? There aren't any more primary debates scheduled at this time, but you'll have three chances to unplug during the general election debates.

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