Is the Internet “Making Us Stupid”? — Top 3 Pros and Cons

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Source: Charis Tsevis, “Does the Internet Make You Smarter? (Illustration for the Wall Street Journal),” flickr.com, June 5, 2010, creative commons license

In a 2008 article for The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr asked, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Carr argued that the internet as a whole, not just Google, has been “chipping away [at his] capacity for concentration and contemplation.” He was concerned that the internet was “reprogramming us.” [1]

However, Carr also noted that we should “be skeptical of [his] skepticism,” because maybe he’s “just a worrywart.” He explained, “Just as there’s a tendency to glorify technological progress, there’s a countertendency to expect the worst of every new tool or machine.” [1]

The article, and Carr’s subsequent book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010, revised in 2020), ignited a continuing debate on and off the internet about how the medium is changing the ways we think, how we interact with text and each other, and the very fabric of society as a whole. [1]

Is the Internet “Making Us Stupid”?
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Pro 1

The speed and ubiquity of the internet is different from previous breakthrough technologies and is reprogramming our brains for the worse.

The internet has reduced our ability to focus; changed how our memory functions; promoted skimming text over deep, critical reading (which, in turn, promotes dangerously false information); and changed how we interact with people.

In the 2020 update to The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr summarized, “It takes patience and concentration to evaluate new information—to gauge its accuracy, to weigh its relevance and worth, to put it into context—and the internet, by design, subverts patience and concentration. When the brain is overloaded by stimuli, as it usually is when we’re peering into a network-connected computer screen, attention splinters, thinking becomes superficial, and memory suffers. We become less reflective and more impulsive. Far from enhancing human intelligence, I argue, the Internet degrades it.” [2]

A 2019 study found that the internet “can produce both acute and sustained alterations” in three areas: “a) attentional capacities, as the constantly evolving stream of online information encourages our divided attention across multiple media sources, at the expense of sustained concentration; b) memory processes, as this vast and ubiquitous source of online information begins to shift the way we retrieve, store, and even value knowledge; and c) social cognition, as the ability for online social settings to resemble and evoke real‐world social processes creates a new interplay between the internet and our social lives, including our self‐concepts and self‐esteem.” [3]

Moreover, several studies have found that not only do people reading digital text skim more and retain less information than those reading text printed on paper, but that the effects of digital reading span from less reading comprehension to less in-depth textual analysis to less empathy for others. [4]

Reading less critically not only results in low English grades, but also in readers believing and proliferating false information, as well as misunderstanding potentially important documents such as contracts and voter referendums. [4]

Bonnie Kristian, Contributing Editor at The Week, also noted the internet’s destruction of interpersonal relationships, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic: Many people have “a lack of intimate friendships and hobbyist communities. In the absence of that emotional connection and healthy recreational time use, this media engagement can become a bad substitute. The memes become the hobby. The Facebook bickering supplants the relationships. And it’s all moving so fast — tweet, video, meme, Tucker, tweet, video, meme, Maddow — the change goes unnoticed. The brain breaks.” [5]

Because the internet touches nearly everything we do now, the fundamental ways our brains process information is changing to accommodate and facilitate the fast, surface-level, distracting nature of the internet, to the detriment of ourselves and society.

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Pro 2

IQ scores have been falling for decades, coinciding with the rise of technologies, including the internet.

For the majority of the 20th century, IQ scores rose an average of three points per decade, which is called the Flynn effect after James R. Flynn, a New Zealand intelligence researcher. Flynn believed this constant increase of IQ was related to better nutrition and increased access to education. [6]

However, a 2018 Norwegian study found a reversal of the Flynn effect, with a drop of 7 IQ points per generation due to environmental causes such as the internet. As Evan Horowitz, PhD, Director of Research Communication at FCLT Global, summarized, “People are getting dumber. That’s not a judgment; it’s a global fact.” [6] [7] [8] [9] [10]

James R Flynn, in a 2009 study, noted a drop in IQ points among British male teenagers, and hypothesized a cause: “It looks like there is something screwy among British teenagers. What we know is that the youth culture is more visually oriented around computer games than they are in terms of reading and holding conversations.” [11]

Further, the internet makes us believe we can multitask, a skill scientists have found humans do not have. Our functional IQ drops 10 points as we are distracted by multiple browser tabs, email, a chat app, a video of puppies, and a text document, not to mention everything open on our tablets and smartphones, while listening to smart speakers and waiting on a video call. [12] [13] [14]

The loss of 10 IQ points is more than the effect of a lost night’s sleep and more than double the effect of smoking marijuana. Not only can we not process all of these functions at once, but trying to do so degrades our performance in each. Trying to complete two tasks at the same time takes three to four times as long, each switch between tasks adds 20 to 25 seconds, and the effect magnifies with each new task. The internet has destroyed our ability to focus on and satisfactorily complete one task at a time. [12] [13] [14]

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Pro 3

The internet is causing us to lose the ability to perform simple tasks.

“Hey, Alexa, turn on the bathroom light… play my favorite music playlist, cook rice in the Instant Pot… read me the news… what’s the weather today…”

“Hey, Siri, set a timer… call my sister… get directions to Los Angeles… what time is it in Tokyo… who stars in that TV show I like…”

While much of the technology is too new to have been thoroughly researched, we rely on the internet for everything from email to seeing who is at our front doors to looking up information, so much so that we forget how to or never learn to complete simple tasks.

In the 2018 election, Virginia state officials learned that young adults in Generation Z wanted to vote by mail but did not know where to buy stamps because they are so used to communicating online rather than via US mail. [15]

We require GPS maps narrated by the voice of a digital assistant to drive across the towns in which we have lived for years. Nora Newcombe, PhD, Professor of Psychology at Temple University, stated, “GPS devices cause our navigational skills to atrophy, and there’s increasing evidence for it. The problem is that you don’t see an overview of the area, and where you are in relation to other things. You’re not actively navigating — you’re just listening to the voice.” [16]

Millennials were more likely to use pre-prepared foods, use the internet for recipes, and use a meal delivery service. They were least likely to know offhand how to prepare lasagna, carve a turkey, or fry chicken, and fewer reported being a “good cook” than Generation X or Baby Boomers, who were less likely to rely on the internet for cooking tasks. [17][18]

Using the internet to store information we previously would have committed to memory (how to roast a chicken, for example) is “offloading.” According to Benjamin Storm, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, “Offloading robs you of the opportunity to develop the long-term knowledge structures that help you make creative connections, have novel insights and deepen your knowledge.” [17]

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Con 1

Virtually all new technologies, the internet included, have been feared, and those fears have been largely unfounded.

Many technologies considered commonplace today were thought to be extremely dangerous upon their invention. For example, trains caused worry among some “that women’s bodies were not designed to go at 50 miles an hour,” and so their “uteruses would fly out of [their] bodies as they were accelerated to that speed.” Others feared that bodies, regardless of gender, would simply melt at such a high speed. [19] Information technologies have not escaped the centuries-old technophobia.

Greek philosopher Socrates was afraid that writing would transplant knowledge and memory. [1]

The printing press created a “confusing and harmful abundance of books” that, according to philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm, “might lead to a fall back into barbarism.” [2] [21] [22]

Similarly, the newspaper was going to socially isolate people as they read news alone instead of gathering at the church’s pulpit to get information. [20]

The telegraph was “too fast for the truth,” and its “constant diffusion of statements in snippets” was bemoaned. [22] [23]

The telephone was feared to create a “race of left-eared people—that is, of people who hear better with the left than with the right ear.” We would become “nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to each other,” allowing basic manners to degrade. [22] [23]

Schools were going to “exhaust the children’s brains and nervous systems with complex and multiple studies, and ruin their bodies by protracted imprisonment,” according to an 1883 medical journal. Excessive academic study by anyone was a sure path to mental illness. [20]

The radio was “loud and unnecessary noise,” and children had “developed the habit of dividing attention between the humdrum preparation of their school assignments and the compelling excitement of the loudspeaker.” [20] [22]

Television was going to be the downfall of radio, conversation, reading, and family life. [20]

Calculators were going to destroy kids’ grasp of math concepts. [2]

The VCR was going to be the end of the film industry. Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) Jack Valenti complained to Congress, “I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the [serial killer] Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone.” [24]

Clinical and neuropsychologist Vaughn Bell, PhD, DClinPsy, noted, “Worries about information overload are as old as information itself, with each generation reimagining the dangerous impacts of technology on mind and brain. From a historical perspective, what strikes home is not the evolution of these social concerns, but their similarity from one century to the next, to the point where they arrive anew with little having changed except the label.” [20]

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Con 2

The internet gives diverse populations of people more equal access to information and society.

The basis of the argument that the internet is “making us stupid” is problematic and ignores large populations of people. First, the idea of “stupidity” versus intelligence relies heavily upon IQ and other standardized tests, which are racist, classist, and sexist. [25] [26] [27] [28] [29] [30]

Additionally, somewhere between 21 and 42 million Americans do not have reliable broadband access to the internet at home, or between 6% and 13%. And 49% of the US population (162 million people) is not using the internet at broadband speeds. Thus we have to question who the “us” includes when we ask if the internet is “making us stupid.” [31] [32]

For those who do have access, the internet is an impressive tool. Kristin Jenkins, PhD, Executive Director of BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium, explained, “Access to information is enormously powerful, and the internet has provided access to people in a way we have never before experienced… Information that was once accessed through print materials that were not available to everyone and often out of date is now much more readily available to many more people.” [33]

Social media in particular offers an accessible mode of communication for many people with disabilities. Deaf and hearing-impaired people don’t have to worry if a hearing person knows sign language or will be patient enough to repeat themselves for clarification. The internet also offers spaces where people with similar disabilities can congregate to socialize, offer support, or share information, all without leaving home, an additional benefit for those for whom leaving home is difficult or impossible. [34]

Older adults use the internet to carry out a number of everyday tasks, which is especially valuable if they don’t have local family, friends, or social services to help. Older adults who use the internet were also more likely to be tied to other people socially via hobby, support, or other groups. [35] [36]

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Con 3

Changing how the brain works and how we access and process information is not automatically negative.

Neuroscientist Erman Misirlisoy, PhD, argues that “internet usage has ‘Googlified’ our brains, making us more dependent on knowing where to access facts and less able to remember the facts themselves. This might sound a little depressing, but it makes perfect sense if we are making the most of the tools and resources available to us. Who needs to waste their mental resources on remembering that an ‘ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain,’ when the internet can tell us at a moment’s notice? Let’s save our brains for more important problems… [And] as with practically everything in the world, moderation and thoughtful consumption are likely to go a long way.” [37]

While we do tend to use the internet to look up more facts now, consider what we did before the internet. Did we know this information? Or did we consult a cookbook or call a friend who knows how to roast chicken? Benjamin C. Storm, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, explained, “It remains to be seen whether this increased reliance on the Internet is in any way different from the type of increased reliance one might experience on other information sources.” [38]

As with anything in life, moderation and smart usage play a role in the internet’s effects on us. Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products (2013), summarized, “Technology is like smoking cannabis. Ninety percent of people who smoke cannabis do not get addicted. But the point is that you’re going to get some people who misuse a product; if it’s sufficiently good and engaging, that’s bound to happen.” We, and the internet, have to learn to moderate our intake. [39]

Heather Kirkorian, PhD, Associate Professor in Early Childhood Psychology at the University of Wisconsin Madison, offered another example: “the effects of social media depend on whether we use them to connect with loved ones throughout the day and get social support versus [use them to] compare our lives to the often highly filtered lives of others and expose ourselves to bullying or other negative content.” [39]

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Discussion Questions

1. Is the internet making us, as a society, “stupid”? Cite your evidence and explain how you believe the internet is or is not “making us stupid.”

2. Does the internet affect the way you think? Have you noticed good or bad effects after being online? What effects and what were you doing online that you believe caused those effects?

3. How can we use the internet responsibly? Give examples and explain why they are important.

Take Action

1. Read Nicholas Carr’s original pro argument at The Atlantic.

2. Analyze comments by 11 experts on whether “constant use of digital technologies [are] affecting our brain health” at Vox.

3. Consider historical examples of technophobia at Slate.

4. Push for the position and policies you support by writing US national senators and representatives.

Sources

1.Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” theatlantic.com, July/Aug. 2008
2.Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, 2020
3.Joseph Firth, et al., “The ‘Online Brain’: How the Internet May Be Changing Our Cognition,” World Psychiatry, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, June 2019
4.Maryanne Wolf, “Skim Reading Is the New Normal. The Effect on Society Is Profound,” theguardian.com, Aug. 25, 2018
5.Bonnie Kristian, “Our Parents Warned Us the Internet Would Break Our Brains. It Broke Theirs Instead.,” theweek.com, Nov. 25, 2020
6.Will Conaway, “Technology Is on the Rise, while IQ Is on the Decline,” forbes.com, Apr. 29, 2020
7.Bob Yirka, “Researchers Find IQ Scores Dropping since the 1970s,” medicalxpress.com, June 12, 2018
8.Mahita Gajanan, “IQ Scores Are Falling Due to Environmental Factors, Study Finds,” time.com, June 13, 2018
9.Rory Smith, “IQ scores Are Falling and Have Been for Decades, New Study Finds,” cnn.com, June 14, 2018
10.Bernt Bratsberg and Ole Rogeberg,” Flynn Effect and Its Reversal Are Both Environmentally Caused,” pnas.org, June 26, 2018
11.Scottie Andrew, “Are Humans Dumber? Study Finds IQ Scores Have Been Dropping for Decades, and the Media Might Be to Blame,” newsweek.com, June 12, 2018
12.Brittany Levine Beckman, “The Internet Tricked Me into Believing I Can Multitask,” mashable.com, Jan. 31, 2021
13.David Burkus, “Why You Can’t Multi-Task,” psychologytoday.com, Nov. 15, 2018 
14.Jodie Naze, “Does Using the Internet Reduce Your Intelligence?,” computerworld.com, May 10, 2005
15.Ashley Collman, “College Students Say They Can't Send in Their Absentee Ballots because They Don't Know Where to Buy Stamps,” businessinsider.com, Sep. 19, 2018
16.Joseph Stromberg, “Is GPS Ruining Our Ability to Navigate for Ourselves?,” vox.com, Sep 2, 2015
17.Maura Judkis, “Do Millennials Really Not Know How to Cook? With Technology, They Don’t Really Have To.,” washingtonpost.com, Apr. 12, 2018
18.Porch, “Cooking Nightmares: A Generational Look at Capabilities in the Kitchen,” porch.com (accessed Mar. 17, 2021)
19.Janet Burns, “Early Trains Were Thought to Make Women’s Uteruses Fly Out,” mentalfloss.com, Aug. 26, 2015
20.Vaughan Bell, “Don’t Touch That Dial!: A History of Media Technology Scares, from the Printing Press to Facebook,” slate.com, Feb. 15, 2010
21.Len Wilson, “11 Examples of Fear and Suspicion of New Technology,” lenwilson.us, Feb. 11, 2014
22.Adrienne LaFrance, “In 1858, People Said the Telegraph Was 'Too Fast for the Truth' Sound Familiar?,” theatlantic.com, July 28, 2014
23.Taylor Danielle, “9 Times in History When Everyone Freaked out about New Technology” ranker.com (accessed Mar. 15, 2021)
24.Josh Barro, “Thirty Years Before SOPA, MPAA Feared the VCR,” forbes.com, Jan. 18, 2012
25.John Rosales, "The Racist Beginnings of Standardized Testing," nea.org, Apr. 24, 2018
26.Frontline, "Interview: James Popham," pbs.org, Apr. 25, 2001
27.Young Whan Choi, "How to Address Racial Bias in Standardized Testing," nextgenlearning.org, Mar. 31, 2020
28.Christopher Bergland, "Why Do Rich Kids Have Higher Standardized Test Scores?," psychologytoday.com, Apr. 18, 2015
29.Eloy Ortiz Oakley, "Commentary: Standardized Tests Reward Kids from Wealthy Families," sandiegouniontribune.com, Nov. 27, 2019
30.Carly Berwick, "What Does the Research Say about Testing?," edutopia.org, Oct. 25, 2019
31.Tyler Sonnemaker, “The Number of Americans without Reliable Internet Access May Be Way Higher than the Government's Estimate — and That Could Cause Major Problems in 2020,” businessinsider.com, Mar. 12, 2020
32.Microsoft News Center, “Nextlink Internet and Microsoft Closing Broadband Gap in Central US,” news.microsoft.com, Sep. 18, 2019
33.Kathleen Stansberry, Janna Anderson, and Lee Rainie, “Experts Optimistic about the Next 50 Years of Digital Life,” pewresearch.org, Oct. 28, 2019
34.Rebecca Thorne, “Social Media as a Communication Tool for Disabled People,” everyonecan.org.uk (accessed on Mar. 16, 2021)
35.Namkee G Choi and Diana M DiNitto, “Internet Use among Older Adults: Association with Health Needs, Psychological Capital, and Social Capital,” Journal of Medical Internet Research, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, May 2013
36.Andreas Ihle, et al., “Internet Use in Old Age Predicts Smaller Cognitive Decline Only in Men,” nature.com, June 2, 2020
37.Erman Misirlisoy, “This Is Your Brain on the Internet,” medium.com, Sep. 3, 2018
38.Saga Briggs, “6 Ways Digital Media Impacts the Brain,” opencolleges.edu.au, Sep. 12, 2016
39.Brian Resnick, Julia Belluz, and Eliza Barclay, “Is Our Constant Use of Digital Technologies Affecting Our Brain Health?,” vox.com, Feb 26, 2019