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3 ridiculous myths about how technology is destroying your mind
Ask yourself: Is there science to back that up?
Did you know that technology is terrible and is destroying our minds? It’s true. It must be true, because people keep saying it. In the 1960’s, television (“the boob tube”) was the “vast wasteland” turning our brains into mush. In the 1980’s, video games were the culprit du jour. More recently, Google has been making us stupid and social media is destroying our real-world relationships.
And now, a recent headline tells us that a “Shocking Study Shows Why Technology Is Not Really Making Us Smarter,” reporting that smart phones have made us so addicted to mindless stimulation that we would rather give ourselves electric shocks than sit quietly and think deep thoughts.
But all of this fear-mongering is just paranoid fantasy. It is as ridiculous today as it was half a century ago. Myths about the terrors of technology are fed by speculation, anecdotal tales, and fear of the unknown, but they are not backed up by actual science.
To protect yourself the next time you are at a party where someone is bemoaning the terrors of technology, here are three myths about how tech is destroying your mind—and the facts that debunk them.
Myth 1. Smart phones have increased our need for mindless stimulation
Let’s look at the aforementioned example first. On July 4, 2014, Science magazine published a research paper entitled “Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind.” In this paper, Professor Timothy D. Wilson and his colleagues examined people’s ability to sit quietly with their own thoughts. The overall results show that people are terrible at sitting and doing nothing—often prefering to do something negative over doing nothing at all.
The full text of the paper is available online (PDF). It outlines a series of experiments that show solid evidence that people are bad at sitting quietly with their own thoughts. One study only involves college students, another involves people aged 18 to 77, and the results are the same: people don’t like doing nothing. The most titillating experiment shows that people even prefer to self-administer electric shocks rather than sit quietly with their own thoughts.
The authors do not relate this result to cell phone use. They speculate about many possible reasons people might not like sitting quietly: they suspect people may get bogged down in negative thoughts or anxieties; they speculate people might find it troubling when they are not given instructions about what to think about; they even theorize that it may be a simple “animal reaction” that we share with all mammals, a desire to be engaged in the world.
Not once do they speculate that technology could be to blame. In fact, they specifically say: “There was no evidence that enjoyment of the thinking period was related to participants’ age, education, income or the frequency with which they used smart phones or social media.”
How was this reported in the media? NPR says “Surrounded By Digital Distractions, We Can’t Even Stop To Think.” Today.com decorates their article with a large graphic of a cell phone and the caption, “Alone with my thoughts? Um, where’s my phone.” The op-ed at Forbes (cited above), “Shocking Study Shows Why Technology Is Not Really Making Us Smarter,” tries to place the blame entirely on the availability of Androids and iPhones.
The author acknowledges that the scientific data show no relationship between use of technology and the ability to “sit quietly,” but this doesn’t stop him from framing the entire article as an anti-technology hit-piece: “The use of mobile devices among younger and younger children may have serious unintended consequences for the ability of future generations.”
I don’t blame the author of the Forbes article, or any of the other pieces that so desperately tried to use this scientific study to demonize smart phones. It’s part of a long-standing tradition in our culture. I’m sure that you can walk into any small town or corner store and find concerned parents who are absolutely certain that smart phones are to blame for the fact that their children hate studying.
You should remember, however, that there is no scientific evidence to back it up.
Myth 2: Social networks are destroying real friendships
It would be a mistake to pick on the reporting of this one scientific study alone, however. The Science article is only the most recent example. We can go back a little further and find another similar myth: that Facebook (along with texting and other social media) is destroying friendship.
Once again, articles that perpetuate this myth rely on speculation and leading rhetorical questions (“By immersing ourselves in social media, are we choosing the quantity of friends over the quality?”) without actually looking at scientific data.
But the data does exist. In a study conducted in 2007, Drs. Peter and Valkenburg looked at 1210 students between the ages of 10 and 17, and found that those students who used online communication to talk with their friends had closer friendships and felt more personal and social satisfaction than students who did not.
In 2011, Mariek Abeele and Keith Row found that texting, instant messaging, and emailing more frequently with friends was associated with a higher sense of belonging and a stronger overall social network. In 2012, Dr. Adriana Manago found that students who had more Facebook friends experienced higher levels of life satisfaction, perceived social support, and overall well-being.
You should be cautious about over-interpreting these results in the opposite direction, of course: Facebook doesn’t actually create friendships and well-being. According to John Cacioppo, the director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, people’s experience with social media merely reflects their experience with the real-world friends. People with strong offline social lives tend to use social media to enrich their social lives even further, while people who experience loneliness online were usually lonely to begin with.
So the next time someone tells you that social media is destroying our ability to have “real world friendships,” remember that, once again, there’s no actual proof of that.
Myth 3: Google is destroying your memory
Finally, there is the all-pervasive myth that Google is making us stupid by removing our need to actually remember anything. Nicholas Carr’s popular screed by this title uses all of the well-known tactics of technophobic scare articles: a few anecdotal stories (he quotes a blogger who blames the Internet for the fact that he no longer has a long enough attention span to read War and Peace) and a few over-the-top frightening speculations about the world being taken over by artificial intelligence—but little or no actual science.
The actual scientific data on how computers affect memory is much more complex. In 2011, Betsy Sparrow, Daniel Wegner, and Jenny Liu collaborated on a series of studies to examine the way having access to stored information (such as Google) influences our memory. They did find that when people know that information is stored on a computer, so that they can look it up later, they do not remember it as well.
However, they also found that when people are presented with information that is stored on a computer, they have a heightened memory of where it is stored and how to retrieve it later. Their experiments showed that, rather than Google making people “lazy,” it provided them with a different mechanism for encoding information: store a reference for how to find the information, rather than the information itself.
A far cry from the “Google is dumbing us down!” myth, the science actually shows that our minds are amazingly efficient. When you know that the information will be available to you later, you remember how to get it instead of what it is. It’s the mental equivalent of the early hunter-gatherer who realizes that he doesn’t have to carry all of the apples back to the village with him, if only he can remember how to get to the orchard.
I don’t expect these myths to go away anytime soon. People have been spreading myths about the evils of technology for hundreds of years. But at least you can arm yourself with these facts, so that the next time you come across an article telling you that your newest gadgets will surely lead to the decline of civilization (or whatever), you can know to be a little skeptical.
Photo via djandyw.com/Flickr (CC BY S.A.-2.0)
Greg Stevens is a data scientist with over 20 years of hands-on experience with machine learning, predictive analytics, and related statistical methods. His research-driven essays tackle issues in pop culture, politics, and science. He also hosts a YouTube channel.