Is the internet making people stupid? Is it making us less intelligent? Certainly the internet is changing the way we think, the way we learn, and the way we read. But is this necessarily a bad thing? In this episode of Thinking in English we’ll try to shed some light on these questions!

(If you can’t see the podcast player CLICK HERE to listen!!)

Vocabulary List 

Paradox (n) – a situation or statement that seems impossible or is difficult to understand because it contain two opposite facts or characteristics 

It is a paradox that drinking a lot of coffee when you are thirsty can often make you feel even more thirsty

Interruption (n) – an occasion when someone or something stops something from happening for a short period

I worked all morning without interruption

To reprogram (v) – to program (a computer or something similar) again or differently 

The computers were reprogrammed to correct the error

Critical (adj) – giving opinions or judgments

He has written a long critical piece evaluating the exhibition.

Comprehension (n) – the ability to understand completely and be familiar with a situation, fact, etc

He has no comprehension of the problem 

Nutrition (n) – the substances that you take into your body as food and the way that they influence your health 

Good nutrition is essential if patients are to make a quick recovery 

Barbarism (n) – unpleasant behaviour 

He witnesses some appalling acts of barbarism during the war

Protracted (adj) – lasting for a long time or made to last longer than necessary 

We had a protracted discussion last night 

On an average day, I probably spend over twelve hours on the internet. I work online, and study online, I teach online, I record and write these podcasts online, I watch TV online and during the pandemic I have been socialising online. My whole life is online! The internet is now a fundamental part of my life, and I guess most of your lives as well. Most of us probably struggle to imagine our modern personal and work lives without internet access. But is the internet actually a good thing? 

If you are reading this as a blog, instead of listening as a podcast, unfortunately it might actually be making you stupider. And it is not because my content is bad (although some people may argue otherwise). It is because you are reading an article on the internet, with millions of options telling you to ‘watch this’ or ‘read that’ or ‘click here.’ Some people have argued that with more content and options available online, our brains have begun learning how to read differently. And, consequently, the way we learn has begun to change. It is a paradox: the internet has given us more information than ever before, and made it easier to access this information, but on the other hand it could be making us less intelligent and more superficial!

Nicholas Carr has written a number of books and articles about this topic. If you want to read in more detail, I’m sure you can find some of his writing online! He argues that technology is causing us to become stupid. One reason is that articles online are now full of hyperlinked text, advertisements, and other interruptions. Unlike a book, in which you can get lost in the text, the internet is full of distractions. When we read information online, our brain is constantly being interrupted: we have to make decisions whether to click, or not click, the links on our screen. These decisions might seem unimportant, but they make it more difficult to turn what we read into deep knowledge!

But does this mean that we are becoming less intelligent? There is actually a lively debate around this topic! Is the Internet “Making us Stupid”? In the rest of this episode, I’m going to introduce two different perspectives on this debate. I want you to listen to the arguments I make, and then decide for yourself what you think. Decide your own opinion! I want you to think in English!!

So, is the internet making us less intelligent? Let’s start with some ‘pro’ arguments. As i already mentioned, Nicholas Carr has argued that the internet is making us less intelligent. It is reprogramming our brains. Research suggests that our ability to focus has reduced, our memory has changed, the way we interact with people is changing, and people no longer practice critical reading! I think this reading argument is quite interesting. Before researching this topic, it had never occurred to me that the way I read on the internet and the way we read a book are fundamentally different. Online, on the internet, most people ‘skim’ read. We read lots of information at a fast pace. This means that we have worse reading comprehension, less ability to analyse texts, and even less empathy!  

This is important for all of you listening. Reading on the internet makes it harder for people to read critically. And reading less critically negatively impacts your English level. So, for all of you learning or practicing English, maybe consider reading real books instead of articles online! 

A second argument is that IQ scores have been falling around the world, which many believe is connected to the rise of the internet. For most of the 20th century, IQ scores were actually rising. This was called the Flynn effect. The Flynn effect suggests that better nutrition, better access to education, and higher quality education caused people to become more intelligent. However, in recent years the Flynn effect has reversed. IQ scores are falling!! Our functional IQ drops 10 points as we are distracted by multiple browser tabs, email, a chat app, a video of puppies, and a text document, not to mention everything open on our tablets and smartphones, while listening to smart speakers and waiting on a video call.

Third, the internet is causing us to lose the ability to perform simple tasks. We now rely on the internet to perform simple tasks and calculations. My parents use Amazon’s Alexa to turn on the lights in the house, many of my friends have smart doorbells to see who is at the front of their house, people use Siri to set timers, and google maps to find directions. In the past, we would need to think about all of these tasks. For example, election studies in the USA suggested that young adults in the USA  wanted to vote by mail but did not know where to buy stamps because they are so used to communicating online rather than via mail. We are now more likely to use pre-prepared foods, use the internet for recipes, and use a meal delivery service. We now store our knowledge or information on the internet, not in our brains — this is called “offloading.” For instance, I have cooked a sesame noodle dish over 10 times in the last year, but i still need to search on the internet for the recipe each time. Instead of learning, we now commonly keep our knowledge online.

On the other hand, not everyone agrees that the internet is making us stupid. Many common technologies we use today were once feared as being dangerous. Did you know that when trains were invented, some people worried “that women’s bodies were not designed to go at 50 miles an hour,” and so their “uteruses would fly out of [their] bodies as they were accelerated to that speed.” Others feared that bodies, regardless of gender, would simply melt at such a high speed. I’ve ridden hundreds of trains, and I’ve not melted yet! The famous philosopher Socrates was scared of writing – he thought it would make people stupid because we wouldn’t need to remember things anymore. The philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm believed that books might “might lead to a fall back into barbarism.” An 1883 medical journal argued that schools were going to “exhaust the children’s brains and nervous systems with complex and multiple studies, and ruin their bodies by protracted imprisonment.” Calculators were going to destroy kids’ grasp of math concepts. We are always fearful of new technology… but does it really mean that it is bad?

The most common argument in support of the internet is that it gives more people more access to information! The argument that the internet is making us less intelligent relies on test and IQ scores… but these are not necessarily the best way to test intelligence. Information is now available to everyone, and it is much more up to date. The internet has been of great benefit to people with disabilities. 

In addition, just because the way our brain works and the way we learn is changing, it does not mean it is negative! The internet is just a new tool – like fire, clothes, and books in the past. By learning to use it, we can concentrate on different things. Yes, people do use the internet to search for lots of information. But before the internet, what would people do? They would need to go to a bookstore or library, and probably most people would never learn that information!

Final Thought

On this episode of Thinking in English I have tried to address the question, “Is the internet making us less intelligent?” On the one hand, the internet has changed the way we think, we no longer do simple tasks, and IQ scores are falling. On the other hand, we have more access to information and change is not necessarily bad. What do you think? What is your opinion? I the internet making our society “stupid”? Does the internet affect the way that you think? Have you noticed any effect, positive or negative, after being online? How can we use the internet more responsibly?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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