In case you haven't noticed by the #hashtags and @handles littered around your television screen, Twitter and TV are really having a magic moment — and this week was no exception.
On Tuesday, there were more than a million tweets about the broadcast of Pretty Little Liars' season three finale. ABC Family heralded it as a milestone: the most tweets ever about an episode of a TV series. The next day, Nielsen released a study showing a link between the number of tweets during a show's broadcast and the show's ratings.
Nielsen and SocialGuide, who teamed up to produce the research, trumpeted the Twitter activity around a show as a measure of "engagement." Engagement, in fact, is the buzzword often repeated in conversations about TV and Twitter, a metric quickly becoming as highly prized and closely watched as ratings or box office returns.
But scientists who research multitasking like the kind viewers would be doing if they were tweeting while watching TV, say viewers who are tweeting while watching a show are the opposite of engaged.
"We don't get to draw on two totally separate pieces of the brain, as it were, to do these things," said Dr. Clifford Nass of Stanford University, who's done extensive research on media multitasking. "It's not like we can say, 'I will have my TV-watching-side of my brain watch TV, and my Twitter-typing part of my brain use Twitter.' They are drawing on the same brain storehouse."
Viewers who tweet and watch at the same time, in other words, have less attention to pay to either activity.
Dr. Jordan Grafman, Chief of the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, concured. "Even if you're doing two things at once, you're sort of doing one, then the other, then one, then the other, in a short time frame," he explained. "It's true we can do these things, we have the capability, but it costs us in deeper thinking."
According to Nielsen, 32 million people in the U.S. tweeted about TV in 2012. "That's quite the confab, but what does it all really mean for the TV industry?" Nielsen asked in a blog post announcing the statistics. "Should networks and advertisers be paying attention? Early research on the subject from Nielsen and SocialGuide says yes."
Researchers who study multitasking also say yes, networks and advertisers should be paying attention to those numbers — but not for the reasons that Nielsen and SocialGuide do.
TV networks and advertisers, Nass said, "should worry because the advertising is having less impact," when viewers are dividing their attention between Twitter and watching TV.
Tweeting viewers, Nass said, "are going on have less memory for the content, less memory for the advertising. Shows should not be happy that people are tweeting while they're watching."
Based on past studies, Grafman said it is reasonable to estimate that tweeting while watching TV, may "distract you enough from the advertising that if somebody did a memory test about the advertisement, you would do worse than if you had not been using Twitter."
Not only are tweeting viewers less likely to absorb the content of the show and the advertisements, studies on multitasking have shown short and long term consequences.
"In the short run, you're attempting to switch back and forth between two things, which means that you do neither as well," Nass said. In the long run, "you're worse at focusing, your working memory management is worse, and you even switch tasks less well."
The news is more dire for younger viewers, like the ones who were tweeting predictions of WHO COULD POSSIBLY BE IN THE TRUNK during Pretty Little Liars' finale (the show was highly-rated among teens 12 to 17).
"In younger kids we've seen social deficits — kids who multitask are less able to manage emotional engagement," Nass says. "Kids who multitask frequently feel less integrated into groups, have more friends that parents think are bad influences, get less sleep, etc.
"For teenagers, it's even more worrisome because of the emotional effects, but also the cognitive effects," Nass said.
His message to teenagers? "Tell them they'll do less well on their SATs — this is true — if they tweet while watching TV. "