We spend an increasing amount of time online. Work, play, and everything in between can be done with a wireless router and a laptop. For many, our quick adjustment to this life-changing invention is a little unsettling. But is it really that bad?
Well, psychologists have been investigating exactly that. They have poured time and resources into exploring the impact of today’s machine-driven world on human behavior. And the results are… a bit mixed.
Do you remember when…
First off, we no longer have to rely on our brains to remember… anything. The internet and our many mobile devices already have all the information we need stored away and Science Magazine proved the potentially negative effects of this in a recent study.
Participating students were asked to enter pieces of trivia, with some being told that the information would be saved and others that it would be deleted. When later asked to repeat their piece of trivia, the group who had known their information would be saved had lower rates of recall than their counterparts.
This doesn’t bode well for a generation with immediate access to all the facts and figures they could ever need at their fingertips.
A new age of researchers
But this information overload isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, in our daily quest to get to the bottom of our burning questions (such as, “Who played that character in that one show?” or “What’s that song that sounds a bit like that other song?”) we will sift through reams of info to source the answer or data we need. As a result, casual internet users are actually becoming pro researchers.
As Columbia University’s Professor of Psychology Betsy Sparrow explains, “We remember less through knowing information itself than by knowing where the information can be found.” And far from being a problem, she views this shift as “kind of amazing,” demonstrating the ability of the human memory to “adapt to new communication technology.”
Essentially, just because the internet has changed the way we learn does not mean that we’re not learning. “If anything,” says Ian Goodyer, Professor of Psychiatry at Cambridge University, “The opportunity to have multiple sources of information provides a very efficient way of learning and certainly as successful as learning through other means.”
What were we doing, again?
On the other hand, anxieties persist about the effect of the internet on our attention span. This 2009 study by Stanford University, for example, points the finger at the multiple, simultaneous feeds of electronic data we’re constantly receiving. We are less motivated to focus on one thing for any substantial stretch of time—why do that when we can have Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Twitter open all at once? Our brains are hungry for constant simulation by new, shiny pieces of information, neglecting the benefits that come from prolonged focus.
And if you feel like it’s impossible to go a day without your habitual screen time, that might be because your body literally can’t. MRI research shows that excessive internet usage can alter parts of your brain in the same way many addictions do. Having just a one-day break from technology has even resulted in physical and mental withdrawal symptoms in some users.
Many experts are standing up for the internet in the face of these accusations. Cognitive psychologist and popular science author Steven Pinker makes the point that, “Distraction is not a new phenomenon. The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life.”
Just as the general public panicked about the printing press, newspapers, and television, we are threatened by the power of this new technology—and we will simply have to get used to it. “Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart,” Pinker concludes.
In fact, according to a Pew Research Center survey with 370 internet experts, 81% of participants agreed that “people’s use of the internet has enhanced human intelligence.” A 2008 study by UCLA supports this, suggesting that older adults could experience enhanced brain function as a result of using internet search engines. Leading the study, Dr. Gary Small explained that “internet searching engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function.”
Where to go from here
There’s no definitive conclusion on whether the internet will prove to be a force for good or bad. No one’s saying we need to launch our phones into the nearest river, but enhanced awareness and more research on the effect of today’s new technologies will be essential as we navigate this new digital age. Only time will tell who’s in the right corner—but whichever way the wind blows, we are going to need the right people leading the way, to guide us through this phenomenon and make the digital revolution work in our favor.