The Internet, Your Brain, and Schools

If you use smart phones, laptops, and other devices a few hours a day and find them stimulating, if not captivating–don’t read Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. It is a well-written, highly provocative argument that will give you the willies. Using the Internet daily, he says, “to find and classify information, to formulate and articulate ideas, to share know-how and knowledge…. (p. 44)” has changed the wiring in our brain affecting how we read and think. Experimental studies show the plasticity of our brain in re-wiring neurons in response to frequent Internet use. And he invokes history–from Plato to the invention of the clock to 15th century printed books–to buttress his argument. He also uses his personal experiences.

As a professional writer and longtime user of computers, Carr was an early adopter. He grabbed ever quicker  modems, glommed onto the Internet, larger hard drives, broadband, email, Google, Facebook,  RSS feeders–anything that would make work (and life) faster, better, and connected. He spent a  lot of time online jumping from link to link.

Then, a few years ago, Carr noticed changes in himself. “I’m not thinking the way I used to think [especially when] reading… I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose….Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do (p.5).” Being online, Carr, says “promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking (p. 116).” Moreover, the Internet delivers to our brain “repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive” stimuli that “turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment (pp. 116-117).” Carr concludes; “Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle; that’s the intellectual environment of the Internet (p.126).”

Carr is hardly a Luddite. As a writer, he fully appreciates the advantages of the Internet and amply cites them throughout the book. But he believes (and has evidence to support that belief) that the Internet has rewired our brain to become even more distracted and, you guessed it: shallow in thinking, reading, writing, and other intellectual pursuits.

Which brings me around to the job of schools. When computers hit schools in the 1980s, Carr mentions the excitement educators had introducing links. Hypertext, enthusiasts argued, would advance students’ critical thinking by letting them move from one point of view to another with a click of a key. Students would be liberated from the printed page and could leap to intellectual connections impossible in a textbook. By the early 1990s, however, enthusiasm had waned as researchers found that negotiating text studded with links increased readers’ cognitive load and weakened “their ability to comprehend and retain what they’re reading (p. 126).”One study found readers “distractedly” just clicking away and often “could not remember what they had or had not read (p. 127).” Links became distractions from in-depth engagement with content.

Such studies, of course, have not diminished the uses of links in the Internet or in what students read on laptop screens in schools. Links are ubiquitous.

(Yes, I use links in my blog posts. I also confess to  deceiving myself when I say that I am judicious in which links I click onto.)

Suppose Carr is even half-right about the Net destroying sustained attention, encouraging distractions, and affecting neural pathways in such ways that undermine critical thinking, following arguments, and evaluating evidence. Even half-right means that pushing laptops, smart phones, clickers, and the next new thing into schools and university classrooms may not be such a splendid idea.

Considering how many educators and cognitive psychologists have been interested in right brain/left brain research, investigating the evidence-based assertions that Carr makes would seem imperative. Also consider the increase in diagnoses of children and youth with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder where inattention, distractedness, and impulsiveness mark their behavior. Surely ADHD has many sources beyond the Internet but, just as surely, the effects of increased screen time at home and in school should be examined as a factor.

The influence of the Internet on students’ thinking and reading outside and inside schools  is seldom made a part of public discussion of high-tech devices. Pressure from high-tech promoting  civic and business elites, economists who see human capital growth a function of technology,and techno-enthusiasts who want schools to feel the  the transforming power of technology–see the 2010 draft of National Education Technology Plan–is unrelenting. Mainstream print and non-print media, continue to tout the virtues of technology in schools, the economy, and society. When it comes to schools, techno-enthusiasts and Utopians, who have yet to meet a computer they didn’t like, rule the roost. I suspect that Carr’s careful, well developed argument and evidence will be dismissed as just another skeptic. That would be a loss in keeping the public informed about the effects of the Internet on our children.


Filed under technology use

8 responses to “The Internet, Your Brain, and Schools

  1. If only people had paid attention to Postman oh so long ago. While Carr makes a strong case for how the Internet changes individuals, I wonder to what extent the internet changes our cultural landscape which changes the individual. I suppose this is a chicken/egg debate & will be impossible to resolve.

    I am teaching a university preservice course this semester on educational technology. I will use Carr, Postman, Keen & you throughout the course in an attempt to subvert the students’ blind worship of technology. When we put too much faith in things to save education rather than people we run the risk of losing education altogether.

  2. If you want to experience endless distraction, try being a school principal. You have people coming at you non stop ten hours a day and seldom have more than a few minutes to attend to anything. I tell people that if they don’t have attention deficit disorder prior to becoming a principal, they will have it soon after they start the job. Text full of hyperlinks can have the same impact if you let it, but if you are aware of the pitfalls, you can read it and check the hyperlinks later, or scan the hyperlinks prior to reading. DrDougGreen.Com

  3. I always begin my graduate technology course with a question: “What is the most important thing in the world of technology?” I get answers related to access, state of the art computers, etc. I bring my students back to earth by letting know that the most important thing in the world of technology is, “people.” Makes for great discussion.

  4. I have a problem with a few things. First is the assumption there was something “right” about the writer’s former state other than his happy memory. Second, the suggestion that psychologists and educators have a good handle on evidence-based research. Third, the assumption that something has happened.

    Opening one’s mouth in front of a group of students about it being the Internet’s fault is not a good idea. At all.

  5. I’ve noticed similar changes in my attention span as well. It’s disturbing, so I’m reconfiguring my technology. I’ve also been reading Roszak’s “The Cult of Information.” He’s not a Luddite either and highly critical of technology. Written ’86, then reprinted in ’94, with an additional introduction, the book is sobering in useful and not useful ways. Historical perspective aaah.

    I think often about our cultural predisposition to uncritically embrace technologies, and about the complete lack of critical discourse of educational technologies.

    I see cult-like habits of mind.

  6. I have always loved the Classics and have been reading Latin and Greek since I was a kid. Now, like most classicists, I’m a technology early adopter, and the difference between the two kinds of reading I do is very palpable. Also like a lot of classicists — must be a brain type thing — I do a good deal of computer programming. While most of us are skimming along “the shallows” of the internet, I can tell you that there are some very focused engineers who require an environment completely free of distractions who are creating these distractions. Programmers often do their best work at night when everyone else is asleep and no one will bother them.

  7. As other readers have noted, there are people (programmers among them) who are very deliberate in their use of technology and who maintain focus as they use it. Technology, of the hyperlink variety, is not the first distraction nor will it be the last we introduce to our culture. The core issue is, who is responsible for managing our attention? We give lip service to the importance of students managing self (check out the 21st Century skills) but we don’t take the time to teach these skills. I have worked with attention-ally challenged children for many years. There is evidence that there are cognitive strategies they can use to improve their focus. If they can do it, certainly we in the mainstream can learn to manage ourselves. Your post helps bring attention to this (very real) issue. I’ll read more after I finish meditating🙂

  8. I don’t understand the difference between footnoted annotation and hyperlinks.

    I have a copy of Arabian Nights that is so old it carries no copyright and was sold with the pages uncut. BUT it has generous footnotes and chapter annotations that make each section of supporting notes nearly the size of the story. Was I harmed by reading it in seventh grade? I started capitalizing all nouns and eliminated punctuation in an effort to emulate those wonderful stories. My English teacher was not as happy. Other than that, no permanent changes in neural circuitry.

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