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. With 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? How 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.
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: make 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.