It’s been said that the Internet does not make you stupid, it merely broadcasts your stupidity to the world. But the pundits may be wrong. Recent thought-provoking studies, which beg to differ, argue that the Internet may indeed make you stupid! And they have evidence to support them.
Writer Nicholas Carr earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Dong to Our Brains. As he summarizes it, “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.”
A study conducted at UCLA showed that people who use Google frequently also had heightened activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain — the part that helps you make decisions. The downside of this is that the barrage of links and ads urging you to click prevents you from becoming more deeply engrossed in any actual information. Carr interprets it this way: “The redirection of our mental resources, from reading words to making judgments, may be imperceptible — our brains are quick — but it’s been shown to impede comprehension and retention, particularly when repeated frequently.” More succinctly: using the Internet rewires your brain.
Other studies show that readers who read physical books retain and comprehend more than readers using tablets or other electronic forms of delivery. Hypertext turns out to be a distraction that gets in the way of deeper understanding.
Only last month, the medical journal, JAMA Pediatrics, published a report citing a study showing that increased use of screens and tablets by preschoolers led to slower acquisition of language skills. Healthy children ages 3 to 5, from middle-class English-speaking households, underwent special MRIs to measure the “integrity of white matter in the brain.” The white matter is the myelin sheath around the brain’s neurons that increases their ability to signal each other.
Researchers, in concert with the parents, determined a “ScreenQ” score for each child in the study, based on the family’s adherence to the current screen time guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics. A score of zero means perfect adherence; a score of 26 means no adherence whatsoever. Overall, the study showed that the higher the ScreenQ score, the poorer the child’s language development and performance on language tests.
The researchers are quick to point out, however, that screens are not intrinsically toxic to learning, but that parents must play an active role in determining how much they are used. And please don’t use tech as a pacifier.
More research is clearly needed in the kids department. But grown-ups may want to take a cue from Nicholas Carr.
Click here to see the American Academy of Pediatrics screen guidelines for children.