Has The Internet Made Us Dumber?


When was the last time you searched the Internet for something? I’m willing to bet you recently did a search from that computer you carry in your pocket: your “phone.”  I am willing to admit that I love to search the internet for answers I just can’t figure out, whether to help me solve a difficult problem or just to satisfy my own curiosity. I’m also willing to bet most people did their last internet search on that computer they carry in their pocket and call a “phone.”

Our phones have come a long way in a few decades, serving more purposes than we knew we needed. They hold our news, address books, books, cameras, maps, shopping catalogs, and so much more. With smartphone internet capabilities approaching those of regular PCs, our ability to connect with global communities and information expands each moment. However, many worry that having a world of information literally at our fingertips saps our intelligence, bit by bit.

Imagine you needed to find out how many miles you had to drive to get to Mount Rushmore. Before the internet, this was a puzzle that required some critical thinking. You could get out a paper map, measure the distance between the two, and do the math, but that could be a rough estimate. You could go to the library and try to look up the information, but that required its own knowledge: knowing where and how to look in a library. easy buttonWith the current technology, I only need to get out my phone, type in my destination, and a robotic voice will give me step-by-step directions with exact distances and travel times—traffic included!

What on Earth could be wrong with this change? The old way sounds tedious, right? Well, though much time and energy is saved in travel planning, we are letting our phones do that bit of critical thinking for us. Web apps and websites give us all kinds of answers we would have had to think critically for otherwise.

There is very little research on the subject given the relative newness of smartphones and the widespread mobility of the Internet. Nonetheless, some research shows how smartphones might affect attention span and ability to focus. Participants in one study lost focus just having a smartphone visible. In all tests, controlled measures showed that attention span and focus levels are about the same as in the 1950s. Basically, people are less willing to focus thanks to smartphones, but their ability to do so is unchanged. Similarly, we are less willing to think critically because the easy solution is only a few thumb-taps away.

Let’s go back to your imaginary trip Mount Rushmore. Beyond the distance to travel, you have a lot of variables to consider. Will you drive, or fly? Where will you stay? Travel planningHow much is all this going to cost?
Before internet ubiquity, you would have gone to the library and make dozens of phone calls to get so much information.

In contrast, you probably imagine checking an app for the best hotel reviews, using a travel website to compare ticket prices instantly, maybe even plotting your whole vacation in an all-inclusive app. Though by using those tools you have clearly saved time and energy, you gained no experience. You did not get to interact with people, benefit from a public service, gather and sort pertinent data about your trip, or even remember any facts or figures. With apps like TripHobo, you can plug in what you want and the work is done for you, and you can fine-tune the decisions or simply go with what computer programming has found for you, barely having even lifted a finger.

Travel plan online

But these apps give us time to worry about other things, and no one I have met seems any worse off for access to the internet. So, has our constant internet access made us dumber? It appears the answer is both yes and no. Having the internet has not decreased overall focus and attention, and intelligence quotients (IQ scores) continue to rise. Nevertheless, we consistently brush aside opportunities to flex our mental muscles and increase mental agility.

The internet provides us with a choice: Signpostmake our brains work, earning the satisfaction of accomplishment, or enjoy the immediate reward and inherent risks of letting a program take control. As it turns out, the real choice we are making is between inward and outward thought. When we think inwardly, we plan and imagine, using the critical and creative parts of our brains to seek sources of information, consider variables, and decide. Conversely, smartphone or computer use often requires only outward thought, which is considerably more passive.

The effect the ever-present internet has on our intelligence is actually well within our control. When presented with a problem, our choices of how to proceed are our own. A great deal has already been done or answered for us, and when time is tight we will certainly make every use of the convenience at our fingertips. However, we should take whatever time we can to puzzle out some answers on our own. After all, you never know what you might learn when you challenge yourself to think.


8 thoughts on “Has The Internet Made Us Dumber?

  1. As I’ve mentioned before in other responses, I do tend to agree with the notion that there’s a notable “dumbing down” tied to over-reliant uses of technology that undermines critical thinking in humans (though, to be fair, I admit to using calculators and the internet as informational crutches). But as I’ve also mentioned, I grew up up in ’80s and ’90s, back when my schoolwork was fairly limited to actual sources of reading and research that required me to actively go out and find appropriate information.

    It was definitely more tedious and time-consuming than what I usually care to do now, but I’ll concede that the work I did during this time was probably more earnest and fulfilling because I had to take on a more active role in my thinking and writing (not that I’d always succeed, though). However, in a certain view, I suppose you could argue that while I experienced some failure with the older methods of learning, it was because of my *own* choices and practices, and not a lack of technical assistance.

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  2. Has the internet made us dumber? It certainly feels that way sometimes, and I enjoyed reading your take on it! People often confuse intelligence with the ability to recall facts, and though this ability is an important foundation for building knowledge, I think true intelligence is also about being able to synthesize and analyze facts. It often feels like people are too confident in the information that they find online, and that they don’t take the time to reflect on it.

    I was especially interested in the article you shared about the role of rest plays in human development. The implications of excessive social media use (ie. outward thought) on young people is quite alarming, but in examining the literature, the researchers make an interesting observation:

    “In the end, the question will not be as much about what the technology does to people as it will be about how best to use the technology in a responsible, beneficial way that promotes rather than hinders social development.”

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  3. I agree with your assessment in that yes, and no, the internet has made us a little more dumb. Although I am confused about the number of articles that contradict one another concerning attention span-some experts say that internet use decreases attention span while some claim otherwise. Growing up, I didn’t have the internet-I used the Dewey Decimal system and read more books than I do now. Perhaps, we are more lazy since we can acquire information at such a quick pace now.There is also such a thing as internet addiction which hasn’t been recognized before-while we use the internet, dopamine is released which can affect mood and behavior. Who knows what the real future implications are and whether damage, if any, is long-lasting or temporary so long as we minimize use of technology?

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  4. I’m currently reading *The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr with one of my classes. It’s definitely going to take a while to see the effects of the internet on our intelligence, but perhaps it’s not a “dumbing down” so much as it is a “changing medium/direction.” I watched a documentary years ago, and unfortunately, I cannot remember the name of it, but one of the experts discussing memory and internet likened the internet’s capacity to change our memory to the invention of the printing press.

    I love being able to look up articles without leaving my house, and similarly, my students have that ability, too, which, to a certain extent, allows for a more equitable education. What I don’t like, however, is when they’d rather grab a phone to look up the answer to something instead of working it out together or even alone. That does bother me quite a bit–– that many people use the internet as a source of unlimited knowledge without examining sources.

    I really enjoyed reading this article, and if you don’t mind, I’d like for my students to read it in conjunction with Carr’s book.

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  5. Wow… has the internet made us dumber? Well, it’s definitely spoiled us -that’s for sure and as with any spoiled child, since we know it will “give us whatever we want” we take full advantage by leaning on it for things that we could likely figure out or do for ourselves!
    In your article, you brought up good points and comparisons on how we now use the internet vs. how we did things in the past. (By the way, I LOVED the old phone clip!) In the past we had to use our brains to figure things out and in that process we learned and retained the information. Now, the internet is at our fingertips-thus the answers to our questions, requiring little effort on our parts and less exercising of a very important muscle- the brain!
    So, has it made us dumb?… I think it’s a double edged sword as it has created a sense of laziness and we don’t do things like go to the library as much but by the same token, it provides us with immediate information and resources, connecting us to information that we may have overlooked in a library.

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  6. I don’t know if the internet has made us “dumber” but I think it has made us lazy. Instead of taking the time to really research a subject we quickly google it and are done. I wish people would really take time and research things instead of just a quick google search.

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  7. Your blog post reminded me of a series of picture I recently saw on Facebook. The photographer Photo-shopped all the phones out of peoples hands. What is left of the pictures are people staring at empty hands without acknowledging others around them. However, as an iPhone user and college student, I do recognize how much I rely on my phone for daily ‘needs’. It would be interesting to see what more can be found of how phones are relative to disconnectedness.

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