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Is Social Media Making Millennials Stupid?
Millennials, listen up: We are not sure about your minds. The digital world is destroying your powers of concentration even as it unlocks new and exciting potentials within. The future will be shaped by the way you think but it is impossible to predict how that’ll work out.
Studies show digital immersion has affected the way you absorb information. You don’t necessarily read a page from left to right and from top to bottom but might skip around, scanning for information of interest. You spend less time reading books than previous generations but process disparate information at higher speeds. It is said you possess a new kind of brain.
Is that a good thing? Yes and no.
Millennials will benefit and suffer due to their hyper-connected lives, according to a 2012 Pew Research Center report on the issue. More than 1,000 technology experts and stakeholders were fairly evenly split about whether your generation’s digital influences will turn out to be a net positive or negative by 2020. Some say you’ll be nimble, quick-acting multitaskers while others say you’ll be driven toward instant gratification, settle for quick choices, and lack patience. A number say the true outcome will be a combination of both scenarios.
Phil Knutel, Chief Information Officer and assistant professor of Information Design and Corporate Communication at Bentley University, says he has adapted to shortened attention spans by teaching academic material in 15-minute sequences before breaking for discussion. The Internet is providing students with the ability to delve into topics but at a cost, he says.
Knutel is interested in the questions raised by American journalist Nicholas Carr in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, which was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction. “Is there a trend toward potentially more superficial processing and inability to focus?” asks Knutel.
In the book, Carr draws on neuroscience to illustrate how intellectual advances have shaped the circuitry in our heads over centuries. For instance, people trained their brains to ignore external stimuli and forged or strengthened neural links in order to think and read deeply. He quotes T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets when describing the literary minds fostered by readers who placed themselves at “the still point of the turning world.”
Modern young people are developing new brain circuitry, Carr says. Their minds are learning to access loads of information and navigate potent search and filtering tools but cannot be still enough to read a book. The millennial mind wants and needs to take in and dole out information in disjointed bursts — the faster, the better.
Carr sees a dark side to all this reprogramming.
“For the last five centuries, ever since Gutenberg’s printing press made book reading a popular pursuit, the linear, literary mind has been at the center of art, science, and society,” says Carr. “As supple as it is subtle, it’s been the imaginative mind of the Renaissance, the rational mind of the Enlightenment, the inventive mind of the Industrial Revolution, even the subversive mind of Modernism. It may soon be yesterday’s mind.”
A study conducted by the Center for Media Design at Ball State University found most Americans spend at least eight and a half hours a day looking at a television, a computer monitor, or the screen of their mobile phone, he reports. According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, young adults between the ages of 25 and 34, who are among the most avid Internet users, were reading printed works for a total of 49 minutes a week in 2008, down nearly 30 percent from 2004.
Nearly all experts agree millennial brains are being rewired to adapt to the new skills needed to survive in the Digital Age. Your mental talents are upsetting old standards and building new ones. But are we responding to change with unwarranted nostalgia for deeper and smarter times?
Just recently a survey of more than 6,000 Americans by the Pew Research Institute found 88 percent of Americans younger than 30 said they read a book in the past year, compared with 79 percent of those older than 30.
Nearly 90 percent of teachers working with teenagers say the Internet is creating an easily distracted generation with short attention spans, according to a 2012 report by the Pew Research Center. But these teachers also say they’ve seen a mostly positive impact on student research habits.
A national survey of classrooms by Common Sense Media found more than 70 percent of teachers believe texting, social networking, and video games have hurt student attention spans but the majority (63 percent) also say the Internet has honed student ability to efficiently find information. Many also say it has improved student ability to quickly switch between tasks.
And some scientific evidence even suggests the Internet is good for the mind. Video gaming leads to significant improvements in performance on various cognitive tasks, from visual perception to sustained attention, according to an extensive 2009 review of studies published on the subject.
That same year a group of neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles had subjects perform Google searches and read a book-like text on the computer. They found the Internet search led to more increased activity in the brain area responsible for selective attention and deliberate analysis. Web use might just engage a greater extent of neural circuitry, declared researchers.
In short, millennials, we say a lot of contradictory things about your minds. We say you are more adept at finding answers to deep questions because of your ability to search effectively on the Internet. You are getting smarter.
We say you don’t retain information and waste time in digital pursuits and neglect deep engagement with true knowledge. You are getting dumber.
You read books, you don’t read books.
It can be hard to predict the future but here’s a guess: whatever happens, you’ll be changing our minds.
Meg Murphy is a freelance writer.
When Brenden Botelho ‘20 and Jonny Boains ‘18 took internships in the Mass. Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, what was the biggest community problem to tackle? Adapting to climate change.