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Your social media habits could be destroying democracy

Voters are following social media while watching presidential debates. That's a problem, says a new study.

For the sake of the republic, please put down your phone.

A study released this week may help confirm what you probably suspected. That endless stream of hashtags, emojis, listicles and Onion articles isn't necessarily making you any smarter. And in some cases it could hamper your political judgment.

American voters consistently rank presidential debates among the most important sources they use when deciding which candidate to support. But these days, voters don't watch debates like they used to.

The biggest change? A lot of viewers are no longer just glued to what's on the TV screen. They're also following what's happening on Facebook or Twitter or Vine or Snapchat (etcetera).

In the campaign for your attention, American presidential candidates face a tough antagonist: your distracting social network's nonstop feed of hashtags, emojis and Onion articles.

Scott Coleman/Zuma Press/Corbis

So researchers for the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania set out to study whether using social media during a debate affected viewers.

It did.

The researchers looked back to data from interviews conducted by Annenberg in 2012 with more than 3,600 adults who'd watched debates between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Interviewees were asked about information that surfaced during the contests. The study found that viewers trying to simultaneously follow social networks and watch the debates "learned at a lower rate" than those who simply sat and stared at the biggest screen in the room.

The results are a reminder that people's ability to do a task suffers when they have to do another simultaneously. There's a lot of research behind the subject. For instance, students at Cornell University did worse on tests when they had their laptops open during lectures. Stanford University students bombed in an experiment that tested their ability to successfully multitask.

For political scientists, especially those who see the debates as a key part of voters' decision-making process, the Annenberg results are troubling.

"It's problematic in that the positive effect of these debates could be eroded," said the study's lead author, Jeffrey Gottfried, now a researcher with the Pew Research Center.

Gottfried's advice: "If you want to get as much as you can from these debates, don't be engaging with social media at the same time."

To be clear, the study isn't saying social media is dumbing down America. In fact it found that overall, social media users in 2012 were "significantly more knowledgeable than nonusers about candidates' stances and background facts." The Annenberg results suggest, though, that social media and political debates are pleasures best enjoyed separately.

The younger crowd may be hard to convince. About 20 percent of the interviewees reported simultaneously monitoring a social network. Among viewers 18 to 29 years old, however, the figure jumped to 44 percent.

The study didn't look at which social media sites were most distracting. Separate research by Gottfried has found that Facebook is the most important source of political news for millennials. The social network didn't respond to a request for comment. Twitter, on the other hand, said the Annenberg study is behind the times.

"We're deep enough into the 2016 presidential campaign that we should probably avoid broad pronouncements based on four-year-old data," said Adam Sharp, who heads Twitter's government and elections team.

Sharp said using Twitter during a debate back in 2012 was a different experience than it is today. At the time, he said, networks airing the presidential debates didn't collaborate with Twitter or look for ways to engage users. In contrast, Sharp pointed to Twitter's partnership with CBS News during a Democratic primary debate in November that let voters ask candidates questions live via tweets.

A group at Annenberg had previously endorsed giving social media a greater role in shaping debates. But a spokesman for the center said it hasn't taken an official position "on the desirability of multitasking while viewing a presidential debate."

Changes like those mentioned by Twitter's Sharp "could possibly" make things better for social media addicts watching debates, conceded Gottfried. He said he plans to redo the survey using data from this year's general election to find out just how much habits have changed. He's not optimistic though.

"The expectation going forward," Gottfried said, "would be that engaging with these two simultaneous streams of information would continue to detract from learning about the candidates."