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.


Selfies: A Sign of Trouble, or a Force for Good?

These days, most social media users need only login to find an example of a selfie: a self-portrait. Instead of taking pictures of what we see, we turn around and photograph ourselves in that moment. This is changing the way we interact with experiences, and even people.

For the most part, we have accepted selfies as part of modern life. Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has embraced the selfie as something her supporters crave from her. In an interview with an Iowa newspaper, Clinton said that she is able to get some quality time in with people who have something to say and request a selfie. She admitted that it does lower the quality of interactions with large groups compared to before the ubiquity of selfies, but later qualified that by saying it was little different than the people who before lined up simply to be photographed with her: “I think the proportion is not that much different.” For some, the focus is on meeting someone famous and capturing the moment, not interacting with the political process.

Selfies Can Do Good

Even the President of the United States posts selfies, but he does more than simply record his memories.

Barack Obama, wearing sunglasses, takes a selfie in front of a glacier in Alaska. Group of people in the background.

President Obama at Alaska’s most visited glacier. Source: http://www.cnn.com/

President Barack Obama took this opportunity while visiting Alaska to discuss climate change in a video selfie, or “velfie,”  with a large glacier. He is certainly not the first person to make use of selfies to raise awareness.

Photo of a man with a homemade clock showing a digital readout saying "2015-09-17 20:47 #IStandWithAhmed"

Ahmed is a young American of Middle-Eastern descent whose home-invented clock got him arrested and searched because his teachers assumed he had a bomb. Source: http://awkwardly.social/

Some social media campaigns use selfies paired with hashtags like #IStandWithAhmed to show support for the oppressed or suffering. Other social change campaigns can be helped by the selfie, and video selfies have helped too. Remember the Ice Bucket Challenge? People loved posting their videos, and it was an immense success, raising over $100 million for ALS research. Peter Hutchison wrote for BusinessInsider.com explaining that video selfies allow for more expression of emotion and action than pictures alone can manage, sometimes evoking a stronger reaction from viewers.

Selfies Can Be Dangerous

However, not everyone is so enchanted with this new form of self-portraiture. From actor Cate Blanchett to Republican Presidential candidate Ben Carson, many people decry selfies as narcissistic and dangerous to Americans. There is some basis for their concerns.

This man thinks the large black bear behind him is a good photo opportunity. Source: http://npr.tumblr.com/post/101116077161/kqedscience-visitors-in-lake-tahoe-are-taking

This man thinks the large black bear behind him is a good photo opportunity. Source: http://npr.tumblr.com/

Selfie deaths have increased drastically as smartphone usage has skyrocketed around the globe. In response, many tourist attractions banned the use of selfie sticks, citing them as contributing to injuries and deaths of selfie-taking tourists.

Russia has even published a pamphlet on when it is not safe to take a selfie:

This warning was published by the Russian government to show where it is not safe to self-portrait,

People have died from careless selfie-taking in these situations. Source: http://www.popphoto.com/

Are selfies narcissistic?

Some research has shown that certain kinds of selfies posted on social media can correlate with narcissism and low self-esteem. Essentially, if your selfie is focused on you–and only you–it’s a bad sign. Selfies that demand attention to appearance with no other objective (like recording a memory or promoting a cause) can indicate a narcissist, most often when the selfies are posted as profile pictures. However, the correlations found between selfies and narcissists were described as small, and because this is the only study on psychological correlations with selfies, their significance needs further study.

Clearly, the selfie issue is a complicated one. On the one hand, some kinds of selfies do seem to indicate some self-esteem issues in our society. However, correlation is not causation: put more plainly, just because selfies might coincide with narcissism does not mean the selfies caused it. The research on the subject seems to suggest that it all depends on a person’s pre-existing motivation.

Are selfies annoying, or empowering?

Kim Kardashian is widely considered narcissistic for the volume of selfies she takes and posts. Source: http://www.whowhatwear.com/kim-kardashian-selfie-book

Kim Kardashian is considered narcissistic by many for the volume of selfies she takes and posts. Source: http://www.whowhatwear.com/

It is easy to scoff at people who post endless selfies. It can be infuriating to see dozens of different poses in just one day, and we may well roll our eyes when we see yet another hashtag selfie campaign set to make us aware of yet another problem in the world. After all, too much of a good thing can be annoying, and selfies focused only on one’s own self-image are not something that include the people they are shared with.

However, I like to try to think of what the selfie taker is trying to tell me with their barrage of selfies. I can learn their mood, their goals, even their sense of humor from the pictures they post. Despite frequent misuse and links to mental illness, selfies clearly provide a new form of expression.

This is a vacation photo of Kate Middleton and her family. They had someone, perhaps another family member not pictured, take their photograph to document their being in this time and place. Source: http://www.popsugar.com/celebrity/photo-gallery/23612024/image/26170077/Four-year-old-Kate-her-father-Michael-younger-sister-Pippa

This is a vacation photo of Kate Middleton and her family. They had someone, perhaps another family member not pictured, take their photograph to document their being in this time and place. Source: http://www.popsugar.com/

 For decades, when we had new experiences or traveled to new places, we would take and share photographs of landmarks and landscapes, or ask others to take our pictures to show where we were. They would decide how they felt the picture would best be taken.

Now, we have taken that decision back, giving us control over the recording of our cherished moments. We turn our backs on the experiences we see, putting ourselves in the forefront of the picture with the experience in the back. This is representative of a shift in how we interact with our lives: we are the most important part of our experiences, and we want to remember it that way. Furthermore, selfies have empowered a generation to share themselves in a way that connects them with the world, whether through the places they have visited or the causes they support. In sharing ourselves in that way, we encourage others to comment and reciprocate.

Overall it appears that the selfie is here to stay, and it has already forever changed our culture. No longer do we need photographers, camera operators, or even strangers at tourist locations to record our lives and our thoughts. For better or worse, the selfie is here to stay.

TL;DR: But Why?

by April Myers

Ever since I could read, I have devoured every reading I could. At first, I read anything with words; from cereal boxes to billboards, I took what I could get. I wanted a book, and once I got one, I read it through a hundred times. That moment of finishing a story, article, or the back of the cereal box is a happy moment. I love to get to the end—to find out the point, to get goose bumps from an open ending, or else just get that feeling of accomplishment: One reading down, infinity to go!

So, when I stumbled upon “Too Long; Didn’t Read” (TL;DR), a growing trend on the Internet, I was perplexed and immediately began trying to understand it. I found that people see what they consider a lengthy read and never look back. Writers for the web and print media alike are beginning to pay heed to this trend, like the TLDR subreddit that says it is for people too busy to read the day’s news.

Is our society so bent on convenience and efficiency? Is this simply status quo while I have been blissfully unaware? The answer is: no one really knows. Skimmers and scanners of text have long been abundant, and more research has been done on why people read and what media they use. A Pew report was released in 2012 discussing the rise of e-reading. The report suggests that the widespread availability of the Internet has created a new market for the written word.

Chart 1: Internet users versus non-users. 83% of users and 66% of non-users read for pleasure. 81% of users and 60% of non-users read for current events. 82% of users and 41% of non-users read for topics of personal interest. 63% of users and 23% of non-users read for work or school. Chart 2: Cell owners versus non-owners. 81% of owners and 74% of non-owners read for pleasure. 79% of owners and 66% of non-owners read for current events. 78% of owners and 51% of non-owners read for topics of personal interest. 61% of owners and 23% of non-owners read for work or school. Chart 3: Tablet owners versus non-owners. 85% of owners and 79% of non-owners read for pleasure. 88% of owners and 76% of non-owners read for current events. 88% of owners and 73% of non-owners read for topics of personal interest. 70% of owners and 54% of non-owners read for work or school. Chart 4: E-book reader owners versus non-owners. 92% of owners and 78% of non-owners read for pleasure. 88% of owners and 76% of non-owners read for current events. 90% of owners and 73% of non-owners read for topics of personal interest. 70% of owners and 54% of non-owners read for work or school. Source: Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Reading Habits Survey, November 16 to December 21, 2011. N= 2,986 respondents age 16 and older. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish and on landline and cells. The margin of error for the sample is +/- 2 percentage points. N for internet users= 2,249. N for cell owners=2,598. N for tablet owners= 638. N for e-book reader owners= 676.

Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project. “The rise of e-reading, Part 2: The general reading habits of Americans” released April 2012

People who might have, in the past, claimed reading was for academia, or else claimed to “hate reading” are encouraged to read anyway by the constant presence of the Internet in their pocket, purse, workspace, even in their bathrooms. (See this article on “Smartmirrors” for more on bathroom internet!)

The Chicago Tribune reported in March that most Americans prefer texting—also known as writing—their messages instead of making a phone call or leaving a voicemail. This suggests a shift to reading becoming our primary method of receiving information. When compared with Argentines and Brazilians, Americans spend double the time on their smartphones.

Having researched trends in reading in general, I now better understand the phenomena of TL;DR. Those who would before have spent little to no time on reading are more encouraged to read, but their motivation is low. However, are they busy people with little time for extraneous words?

Bob Bailey wrote about the mechanics of reading in 2002, particularly focusing on optimal line lengths. The study he describes found that:

  • Users prefer to read shorter lines, usually 3-4-inch line lengths.
  • Users prefer a 3-column format.

Patrick Lynch and Sarah Hortons’ Web Style Guide, 3rd edition also mentions in its seventh chapter that optimal line length exists because longer lines make the eye muscles have to strain more. Shorter lines require less energy and time. Furthermore, columns on a page provide some white (or blank) space amid the text, which gives the reader some proverbial breathing room. Or, as Lynch and Horton put it: “Filling all the white space on a page is like removing all the oxygen from a room—an efficient use of space perhaps, but decidedly difficult to inhabit.”

This seems to illustrate some reasoning behind TL;DR. The time it takes to read is clearly not the only consideration here. Why do readers need white space to “inhabit” at all? Psychology gives us the answer we seek.

This article from the Association for Psychological Science discusses a study conducted in which people who read task instructions in an easy-to-read font assume the task will be easy. Conversely, people reading instructions in a difficult-to-read font assumed the task would be difficult. Most importantly, people who assumed the task would be difficult were less willing to do it. If it is hard to read, we assume it is hard to do. All it takes is for us to perceive the task as hard.

Thus, my perplexity is solved. It’s not that people hate to read. It isn’t really even that they don’t have the time. Simply put, people prefer to do things that are easier. We prefer shorter lines because they are easier to deal with.  We like three-column layout because it seems we can handle the information better. It has little to do with speed, and everything to do with comfort.

We writers cannot afford to scorn readers too busy for our precious words. Though they are precious to us, it is up to us to make them accessible to our readers. To combat the trend of TL;DR, we must remember to work to make the user comfortable.