Web making us worried, but probably not stupid

The cover article of this month’s Atlantic magazine argues that our increasing reliance on internet technology means we’re becoming less able to focus and absorb ourselves in a task because we’re so used to mentally ‘jumping around’. It’s a common concern, but is almost entirely devoid of evidence.

Similar arguments have been put forward before, and they usually take the form of suggesting that digital technology influences how we think to point of it affecting our fundamental ability to concentrate and reflect for sustained periods (tellingly, the example usually given is ‘reading books’).

Probably the first version of the argument was put forward by Jane Healy in her 1990 book Endangered Minds, and expanded in the 1998 book Failure to Connect.

Healy argues that children’s increasing exposure to computers has created a “toxic environment” that leads to patterns of “disorganized thinking” and “mental restlessness” akin to ADHD.

Interestingly, computer use has been linked to the symptoms of child ADHD in a 2006 study, but it only reported an association between computer use and symptoms reported by parents – no measure of attention was used.

One other study found that ADHD kids have more problems playing the games, but the only study I know of that actually measured sustained attention during video gaming found that ADHD kids could concentrate equally as well as other kids.

In other words, their inability to focus seemed to ‘disappear’ when using a computer, which might explain the association mentioned earlier. In other words, kids with ADHD might use computers more because they help them focus.

Nevertheless, the argument has now broadened to encompass the effects of adults, the ‘brain plasticity’ is almost always mentioned as an explanation.

While the Atlantic article warns against conclusions drawn from anecdotes, it is almost entirely anecdotal. Tellingly, it quotes not a single study that has measured any of the things mentioned as a concern by the author or anyone else.

So here’s what we’d want to do to test this concern out: use some neuropsychological tests of sustained attention to investigate whether internet use is linked to worse concentration.

A cross-sectional study that just compared heavy web users with light web users would provide suggestive, but ultimately weak, evidence, because it may just be that those with worse concentration find the web more attractive (like the ADHD kids with games).

A longitudinal study would be more useful. It would need to test a group of people at the beginning to make sure they were all equivalent and would then re-test everyone at a later date and see whether those who became heavy web users had worse sustained attention.

A randomised controlled trial would be the best evidence, and it would randomly assign a group of equivalent people to heavy or light web use and then it would measure the effects on the ability to concentrate.

As far as I can tell, not a single study has been completed that has actually tested sustained attention in web users – even for the weakest form of evidence. If you know of one, do let me know, because I’d be interested to find out. So far though, I know of none.

There have been some related studies on video games, but they tend to show the reverse, that video games are linked to better mental performance.

The improvements here all almost all in divided attention or visual search – the ability to take in information over a wider space – so it’s difficult to generalise to sustained attention.

In terms of any new technology, it’s obvious having tools to hand changes the strategies we use to solve problems, but so far, there is no strong evidence that Google, YouTube, Facebook or any other part of the web affects the fundamentals of how we think.

As the article mentions, concerns about new technology go back to Plato’s worries that writing will make people mentally dull because it encourages ‘laziness’.

Until the hard evidence comes in, anxieties about the web remain fear rather than fact. The data just doesn’t exist.

Link to Atlantic article ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’.

4 thoughts on “Web making us worried, but probably not stupid”

  1. Right, what is worrying is the lack of studies on the subject, given the massive use of technology in our life. When you write
    “In other words, their inability to focus seemed to ‘disappear’ when using a computer, which might explain the association mentioned earlier. In other words, kids with ADHD might use computers more because they help them focus.”
    This sounds to me as addicted people, who feel restless unless they get their fix. Television, too, has this soothing effect, but only apparently, since it provokes restlessness after the set is off.

  2. My impression of why people with ADHD are able to focus so my easier on stimuli like video games is the nature of the medium. Immediate performance feedback, and constant visual stimulation. Contrast this against, say, a teacher talking up at the board about conjugations…
    Another issue would be level of interest. My understanding of ADHD is that it isn’t so much an inability to focus when one is interested in something, it is the inability to sustain attention when other (more interesting) things are around. Again, how can a teacher droning on about past participles compete with a bird seen out the window, chowing on a worm it just dug up!
    …I’d also like to point out that on a podcast called Econtalk, Tyler Cowen was interviewed about his book “Discover Your Inner Economist.” He made a similar anecdotal observation, based on interactions with students. He indicated students just don’t appear to want to spend the time to truly understand a concept anymore, through and through. It was his observation that many of his students simply want to “get the gist” and move on. He also noted entertainment preferences seem to be getting shorter and shorter – from novels and plays to movies to television shows to Youtube. Again, only anecdotal, but certainly an area ripe for research.

  3. Jeremiah’s comment is spot-on: it’s not that we can’t focus, we just can’t focus on what doesn’t attract our attention. I, for one, can work like mad on a math problem for an hour, but couldn’t pay attention to what a teacher was saying for more than six (and I *mean* six seconds).
    The computer and the Internet are like a blessing, because they allow us to do things at the same pace of our desires: to read from four different web sites whilst you’re listening to music, burning a DVD and chatting with three friends about philosophy, every-day life, and cars.

  4. I agree with Ivo: it’s distressing that there is such a lack of research in the field.
    One morning, 10,000 academic researchers should wake up and say, “We’re bathing our brains in 1,000,000X more information than we’ve evolved to handle. Our society’s intellectual canaries — artists, poets, musicians — are babbling on about accelerating change, a ‘singularity’, transhumanism, and the Internet being a kind of mental prosthetic. OMG, this is important.”
    Regarding those canaries, skip this article, and read the comments: http://www.realitysandwich.com/2012_and_poets_dilemma

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