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.
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?’.