Recent research reveals, none to my surprise, that our smartphones are making us stupid. To quote The Wall Street Journal: “As the brain grows dependent on the technology, the research suggests the intellect weakens.” When the phone beeps or chirps, it distracts us, whether we admit to it or not, “the division of attention impedes reasoning and performance.”
Teachers, school administrators and education professionals, take note: “A study of 91 secondary schools in the UK published last year in the journal Labour Economics found that when schools ban smartphones, students’ examination scores go up substantially, with the weakest students benefitting the most.” Sure, the student can find the answer on Google, they just cannot recall it to any substantial degree and if they cannot recall it, they didn’t really learn it, they just referenced it.
There are many subjects in academia that require rote memorization, there is simply no substitute for it. Things like math equations, hard science subjects like anatomy and chemistry require that certain fundamentals be committed to memory. Academically, history is the recall of dates and names and the events that unfolded. Certainly, these can all be found on Google, but, as stated, being able to reference something and recall it are two entirely different competencies. I once wrote a research paper on hypnotic age regression, one of the most obscure (back then) topics one could choose concerning human consciousness. I sent off to college libraries across the map to find the limited number of books on the subject, and one of them was so poorly written that it was barely comprehensible. A quick Google search today reveals at least nine websites to click on.
That was then, this is now, but the ability to discover things by doing research is certainly a skill that will benefit anyone, in academia and well beyond. Information is how we make decisions, and bad information yields bad decisions. I won’t even address the impact these devices have on critical thinking competency.
I am not criticizing anyone for using Google to discover things, but there are at least two problems: One, the “information” on the internet is not as reliable as one might think, and two, hard research involves the ability to discern what information is relevant and what is not. There must be a foundation of knowledge, of understanding, that guides the research as well as makes the judgments regarding the validity of conclusions. Looking it up on Google is simple and easy, but recalling the information is far more difficult.
A study cited in the Wall Street Journal from the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology studied 160 students from the University of Arkansas at Monticello. The students that didn’t bring their smartphones to class scored a full letter grade higher on test material presented than those who brought their phones. The scary part is that it made no difference if they used their phones or not, if they simply brought their phones, they scored equally poorly.
More bad news. When the internet came into our consciousness, it was lauded as a tool that would make us all smarter, but it hasn’t turned out that way. More information does not always foster sharper thinking, as the article states: “The way a media device is designed and used exerts at least as much influence over our minds as does the information that the device unlocks.” Another more troubling experiment published in the journal Science involved people typing information into a computer, and half were told that that the computer would save the information, while the other half were told it would be immediately be erased. The second part of the experiment was for the subjects to write down all of the statements they could remember that they typed. The subjects who believed that the information would be saved had much weaker recall than those who were told it would be immediately erased. If you know it will disappear, you’ll try to remember more of it.
The conclusion is rather simple. The smartphones are not making us smarter. They are inhibiting our memory, they are distracting us, as well as making us more reliant on technology than ever, and worst of all, to use a rather blunt term, dumber. The basic memorization skills are fading into the books on the shelf in the library collecting dust that our young people now consider to be an antiquated method and a waste of time and effort.
Tell junior to put away the smart phone, it is making him dumber