I remember, when I was fourteen years old, spending a few weeks at my aunt’s house in Humboldt County, CA, where my evenings were consumed by hours spent chatting with friends on AOL Instant Messenger. Some of those friendships would go on to become meaningful, defining aspects of my time spent in high school, while others faded away, united by little more than time zones and a similar taste in music.
But there is one thing all these online conversations had in common: I remember almost none of them.
I have no idea what we talked about. I scarcely remember anyone’s screen names, or even my own. What I do remember about that trip to Humboldt County was hanging out and laughing with my cousin, going out to the family’s favorite Mexican restaurant, hiking in the redwoods, and the evenings I spent offline, making collages from old magazines on my cousin’s bedroom floor.
Those forgotten IM nights may be an inkling of what is to come for the memories of millennials, Generation Z, and others younger than that, all raised essentially online and on their phones. For a number of reasons, researchers hypothesize, the time we spend interacting with technology and social media may be affecting how, and what, we remember.
It’s difficult to say with absolute certainty just how much technology will impact people’s memories in the long term; after all, the internet is only 29 years old. Its widespread adoption in the form of smartphones and social media is even younger, and historically speaking, the change it’s wrought upon society is unique.
But there is a growing body of research that indicates that technology, and particularly smartphones, may affect what moments will be encoded into our memories and what, years later, even a photo or a social media post won’t be able to resurface.
“If you’re not paying attention to it, you’re not going to be able to remember it. You’re not going to be able to encode that memory if you never actually have the experience,” says Adrian Ward, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Texas, Austin who has studied how…