No, doofus: the internet isn’t making you stupid

By Greg Stevens on October 15th, 2012

A claim like “the internet is making people stupid” is not a matter of opinion. You don’t determine its veracity by consulting your feelings, asking a friend for his life story, or constructing a compelling narrative. It is a science question: its truth will be revealed by research.

People love a good story, though, especially when it is about new technology leading humanity to disaster.  “It happened with film, television, and video games… and now the internet,” says Dr. Jillianne Code, Assistant Professor at the University of Victoria, a research scientist who studies the influence of the internet on education and learning. “These arguments are cyclical and have happened repeatedly over the past century whenever a new technology is introduced to the masses.”

Over the last few years, there have been a number of variations of the same basic myth repeated in the press: the internet is making you less intelligent; the internet is destroying your memory. More recently, the mythology has migrated to social media, too: social media are destroying our real-world relationships.

Luckily, you don’t have to rely on story-telling, sensational books and magazine articles or your gut instincts to find out whether these myths have any truth to them. Scientists are studying all of these claims, and have been for years. So I had a chat with Dr. Code to find out what science has to say about these claims, and although there are still issues to explore and nuances to examine, for the most part the verdict is in: the paranoid myths are nothing more than paranoid myths.

As with any technology, whether the internet helps or hurts you depends on how you use it.

Myth: The internet is making you less intelligent

There is a collection of well-established tests that psychologists use, called the Cognitive Assessment System, that is designed to evaluate people’s overall mental ability in four distinct areas: planning, attention, simultaneous processing, and successive processing. Each of these mental abilities operates in different parts of the brain, and represents a different aspect of what people generally think of as “intelligence”.

These four abilities also happen to spell out the cute acronym “PASS”, which allows people to talk about the “PASS model of intelligence”. The Cognitive Assessment System is a set of tests that allows psychologists to measure and evaluate each of the PASS abilities independently, instead of collapsing them down to a single “intelligence” score.

To make this a little more concrete, let’s consider one of the actual tests. In the “number detection” test, you are given a page that is covered in digits presented in two different fonts in random order and combinations (e.g. 1 2 1 6 5 5 3 6 2). A person is given a target set of numbers in a particular font to look for (e.g., 1 2 3 4 5 6), and he is given 60 seconds to circle all numbers on the page that match an item, both font and number, in the target set.

Credit is given for each correct number circled, and the maximum possible score is 51. This test is specifically designed to score visual attention: your ability to notice and focus in on specific features that matter. It is just one of the tests that goes into establishing a person’s overall score for the “Attention” component of the four PASS skills.

In 2007, Dr. Code collaborated with Dr. Genevieve Johnson in a study that asked this question: is there any difference between frequent internet users and infrequent internet users on any of the PASS capabilities? They gathered a group of 406 students, and divided them into “frequent internet users” and “infrequent internet users” based on their answers to a set of survey questions. These questions covered everything from how often they are online to how often they play games or download music. They then had them take a selection of tests from the Cognitive Assessment System to see how they scored.

They found no differences between frequent and infrequent internet users in the two “S” skills: simultaneous processing and successive processing. But there was a difference in both planning and attention: specifically, frequent internet users did better on the tests for both planning and attention than infrequent internet users.

For example, frequent internet users scored on average 20/51 on the “Number Detection” test described above, while infrequent internet users scored an average of 17/51. That may not seem like a big difference, but it was a statistically significant result: there is a less than 1 per cent chance that the difference would happen by chance.

What does this prove? One possible explanation is that using the internet actually stimulates your mind. Using the internet may serve as a kind of practice or training for your attention and planning that increases your skill.  Of course, it’s also possible that the cause-and-effect go in the other direction: people who have better attention and planning skills might use the internet more often.

Maybe people with poor attention and planning skills just get fed up with the internet more easily and so don’t use it as much. More research will have to be done to find out the details; however, this result makes one thing clear: frequent internet are more intelligent than infrequent internet users, not less, at least in terms of their “attention” and “planning” scores.

Myth: Relying on Google makes your memory worse

Psychologists have known for a long time that there are two ways that you can remember something: you can remember it, or you can remember how to find out. This isn’t some fancy new idea that psychologists just came up with since the advent of Google. In the study of social groups and organisations, decades of research have shown that there are times when a team of people has a collective knowledge that is greater than the knowledge of any one person in the group. In 1985, Daniel Wegner coined the term “transactive memory”: memory that is stored in networks of people instead of individuals.

The key to transactive memory is that any individual in the group has his own special knowledge or “area of expertise”, but also has knowledge of the types of things that other people in the group know. This distributed memory is especially obvious in work environments: you know who to go to if you have a problem with your computer, who to go to if you have a question about a customer, and who to go to if you have a questions about finance.

But the same type of transactional memory happens in families, groups of friends, and all types of other social networks. When you function within a group, you there are things you don’t have to remember because you know who you can turn to in order to find out.

In 2011, Betsy Sparrow, an Assistant Professor at Columbia University, collaborated with Daniel Wegner and Jenny Liu on a series of experiments designed to ask this question: is Google making your memory worse, or are you simply using it as a form of transactional memory?

In one test, they showed people bits of trivia (stuff like “an ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain”) and had them type each statement into a computer. Half of the people were told the computer would save what they typed, while the other half were told the information would not be saved. At the end, all of them were asked to write out as many of the trivia statements as they could remember. The people who believed that their information would be available to find later on remembered less than the people who were told the information was not saved.

By itself, this seems like confirmation of the myth: we use computers as a “crutch”, and it is making our memories worse.

However, there was a second test. In this test, researchers again showed people pieces of trivia and asked them to type the statement into a computer. The computer responded either by saying “Your entry has been saved”, “Your entry has been erased” or “Your entry has been saved to…” followed by a folder name.

Each person was then shown a list of statements and asked two questions: “have you seen this fact before?” (sometimes it was a trivia fact they were shown before, sometimes it was a statement that was altered slightly) and “was this fact saved or deleted?”

When a fact had been flagged as one that the computer erased, people had a better memory of the fact itself. However, when the computer told them that the fact had been saved, they more accurately remembered that the fact had been saved. Another variation of the same experiment was done to demonstrate that when people know that information is saved, they have a better memory for where it is saved than what the information is.

All of these experiments, taken together, show that using a computer doesn’t simply make your memory “worse” in a holistic sense. Instead, when you use a computer, you are shifting the way that you store information. When you know the the information will be available to you later, you store the information as a “transactional” memory; in other words, you remember how to get the information instead of what it is.

If all of this talk of “transactional memory” seems like psychological double-talk to you, consider this: it’s really just a sign that your brain is working as efficiently as possible. It’s akin to the early hunter-gatherer who realises that he doesn’t have to carry all of the apples back to the village with him, if only he can remember how to get to the orchard.

Other research has looked more specifically at the use of Google, too. In 2009, neuroscience researchers Dr. Gary Small and Dr. Teena Moody performed brain scans of people while they did text searches on Google. 24 subjects were divided into two groups based on their answers to survey questions: one group that had minimal exposure to the internet and computers and another group that had extensive exposure.

Each group was exposed to two different tasks: in one task, they simply had to use the computer to read a book, using the keyboard for simple tasks like advancing the page; in the other task, they had to use Google to research a particular topic, for example they might have been asked: “Find out the benefits of eating chocolate.” All the subjects were having their brains scanned for activity during these tasks.

The people who had little or no prior experience with the internet showed exactly the same levels of activation for both the reading task and the internet search task. This is, by itself, an interesting result. According to this experiment: you brain can’t tell the difference between reading a book and researching online. The levels of activation, and the areas of the brain activated, were the same for both Googling and reading. It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that if reading is good for your brain, then Googling must be good for your brain as well.

But the results for the people who had extensive internet experience were even more interesting. For this group, the brain activation during the reading task was the same as the brain activation for the “internet-naive” group. However, for those with internet experience, using Google to search actually produced higher levels of activation in the parts of the brain associated with complex reasoning and decision-making.

Once again, it’s too early to read too much into these results. Does the greater activation in the MRI scan mean that internet-savvy users are engaged in more complex though processes during their internet searches than those without internet experience? Does it somehow reflect that people with internet experience feel more actively engaged in the search process than in a passive reading task?

It will take more time and experiments to know the full story. But one thing is certainly clear: Google is not damaging your memory or your brain.

Myth: Social media are destroying real-world relationships

In the last five years, special attention has been focused on the roles of instant messaging and social networks on real-world social relationships. There has especially been hand-wringing and anxiety among parents of pre-teens and adolescents who fear that excessive use of texting, Twitter and Facebook will make their children awkward, lonely, or incapable of having “normal” (by which parents usually mean “face-to-face”) social relationships.

Of course, it is always difficult to to scientifically measure things like “quality of your friendships” or “your happiness with your social life”. Social psychologists usually use massive surveys, asking questions in a number of different ways to try to get the most valid results that they can. Even then, there are always those who will question the results of a survey. But when survey after survey all seem to point to the same result, the evidence is difficult to ignore.

In 2007, Drs. Peter and Valkenburg at the The Amsterdam School of Communications Research surveyed 1,210 Dutch adolescents between the ages of 10 and 17 (53 per cent girls, 47 per cent boys). They were asked how long they spend on Instant Messaging and in chat rooms, whether they talk mainly with close friends or strangers, how often they spend time with their friends, and their overall satisfaction with their social lives lives in general.

As it turns out, people who use online communication to talk with close friends had closer friendships, and felt more overall personal and social satisfaction, than people who did not use online communication to keep in touch with their close friends. People who primarily used online communication to talk to strangers, on the other hand, didn’t show any effect on quality of life or friendships; in other words: their social lives were neither improved nor hurt by the fact that they were chatting with strangers online. Plus, there was no evidence that using online communication “displaced” spending face-to-face time with friends.

In 2009, the same two researchers performed a longitudinal study to examine this same question. In this case, instead of comparing different groups of students with each other, they surveyed the same group of adolescents twice, with a 6-month interval. They examined a group of 812 Dutch adolescents between the ages of 10 and 17, and once again asked them questions about their use of online communication, their friendships, and their life satisfaction.

As with the previous study, they found that increased use of online communication with friends had a positive effect on their perception of the quality of the friendships on their overall satisfaction with life.

In 2011, Mariek Abeele and Keith Row at the University Leuven, Belgium, studied college freshmen at the beginning of the academic year and found that texting, instant messaging, and emailing more frequently with pre-college friends was associated with a higher sense of belonging and a stronger overall social network.

In a 2012 research article endearingly entitled “My and my 400 friends:  The anatomy of college students’ Facebook networks, their communication patterns, and well-being,” Dr. Adriana Manago at the University of California and her colleagues conducted a survey that specifically looked at the relationship between the use of Facebook and social relationships.

They found that disclosures on Facebook, which are usually frowned upon by adults, were being used by students as a way of building a sense of intimacy. Students with larger networks and larger estimated audiences felt a greater sense of connection with their friends, and reported higher levels of life satisfaction, perceived social support and overall well-being. Facebook “sharing” has therefore become a way of fulfilling one of the primary needs and components of social relationships: self-disclosure and connection.

Of course, we can debate the details of the results of any one of these surveys, and more research will need to be done to fully understand the role that social media are playing in the lives of young people today. But study after study points to at least one overwhelming conclusion about social media: far from “destroying” our real-world relationships, social media can play an integral role in enhancing our existing social relationships and improving our sense of well-being.

Conclusion

As a society, we have to go through a process of learning how to use the internet and social media. It takes time to realise that Google improves your memory for how to find information, even as it may decrease your memory of the information itself. It takes time to realise that social media will improve your social life the most if you use it to enhance your existing friendships instead of talking to strangers.

While we, collectively, are experimenting and learning these things, some people will make mistakes. There will be people who misuse the internet, and they may even harm themselves in the process.

But the anti-internet and anti-social-media witch-hunts by some in the media today are ridiculous: as ridiculous as the claims in the 1980s that video games would destroy your mind, and those in the 1960s that television would. The internet is a remarkable tool for connecting with other people and for accessing information, and it has the capacity to make us smarter, happier with our relationships, and better-connected with our friends.

If you feel strongly that the web is making you stupid or destroying your social relationships, it doesn’t mean there is anything unsound about the interaction of humanity and technology. It perhaps only means that you, personally, have an unhealthy relationship with the internet, with other people, or both.