The psychological impact of digital technology on K-12 students has been the subject of considerable research. “Internet addiction,” video game violence, and cyberbullying have received much attention. The impact of digital life on children’s cognition is less familiar to young users, their parents, and teachers. Yet, new technologies have altered key aspects of cognition. Writing, reading, focusing, and remembering have all been transformed, dictating new realities in the classroom and beyond.
A large proportion of interpersonal communications among those old enough to have a cellphone occurs over text messaging platforms. As early as 2012, teens between 14 to 17 years old were sending a median of 100 texts a day, according to the Pew Research Center. Much of these communications are in a language that bears little resemblance to the one they are being taught in school. This comes at a cost: It is difficult to convey meaning without the paralinguistic cues of gesture, facial expression, emphasis, and intonation, and this problem is hardly addressed by the creative addition of emoticons or bitmojis to convey feelings. Highly interpretable, the abbreviations, symbols, and pictograms of e-language cannot fulfill the role of language to express with precision and nuance specific facts or states of mind. Yet, digital-based communication is the new lingua franca.
With all manner of information at students' fingertips, why memorize anything?"
This is compounded by the dumbing down of content. The primacy of speed in electronic communication results in missives that try to squeeze the most into unrealistically short sentences (if they can still be called that). The physical limitations, even for agile, well-trained fingers, to typing on a small screen also conspire against extraneous detail or background, grammatical demands, or social niceties. The result can be an avoidance or oversimplification of complexity and exchanges that are reduced to decontextualized opinions, abrupt declamations, or rapid transactions.
Linguists may celebrate these changes as signs of a language that is alive and evolving. The same process that transformed “it is” to “it’s” may be transforming “laughing out loud” to “LOL.” Still, the speed with which written expression is changing is unprecedented—LOL itself seems passé among young texters, having been replaced by pictures and various iterations of the smiley face. The abandonment of even acronyms can be seen as a sign of language regression, a sort of “evolution” toward a neo-hieroglyphic age, with real cognitive implications.
Reading is similarly transformed. Some eye-tracking experiments suggest that people read a page differently online—in a scanning “F” pattern superimposed on the page, rather than top to bottom and left to right. Research from University College London suggests that online readers “scan, flick, and ‘power-browse’ their way through digital content,” constantly looking for distractions in the form of other online material they could be reading. These issues would seem more acute for digital natives who may have never had enough practice with “traditional” reading. As happened with writing, we have invented new ways to read, perhaps cognitively rewiring our brains along the way.
Attention, another pillar of cognition, is also compromised. The rates of attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder, including in very young children, have risen, in a manner that raises questions about the role of early and very frequent screen exposure. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the estimated number of children and adolescents who have ever been diagnosed with ADHD increased from 4.4 million in 2003 to 6.1 million in 2016. Other studies that directly assessed the link between ADHD and excessive screen time point to a strong association. This was highlighted in a large meta-analysis of 15 studies that explored the association between ADHD and “internet addiction.” It concluded that internet addiction in adolescents and young adults was associated with more severe symptoms of ADHD.
Of course, such data pose a chicken-or-egg question: Do digital technology addicts develop ADHD because their attention spans shorten online, or are kids with ADHD attracted to the internet because its pace matches their compromised attention? While the answer remains elusive, the correlation is there and may have contributed to the increase seen in the number of stimulant prescriptions: Drug usage statistics suggest that the number of prescriptions for the stimulant methyphenidate—such as Ritalin and Concerta—has risen by over 27 percent between 2004 and 2014 in the United States, and the number of psychostimulants prescribed in the United Kingdom has more than doubled over the same time period. If attention shrinks, students’ cognitive universe, almost by definition, will shrink.
With all manner of information at students’ fingertips, why memorize anything? This is not a silly question, and students increasingly ask it of their teachers. After all, whatever knowledge nugget they might be after, it is highly likely that a quick search will yield it. Traditionally, education involved storing information into students’ heads. The search engine has made it so that learning is increasingly about mastering how to navigate databases.
If, in this new paradigm, downloading has replaced retrieving information from a student’s internal library, what does it purport for digital natives’ memory neurons? There is still plenty that neuroscience does not know about how memories form and are accessed, but might we compromise in any way the capacity to remember if we stop “exercising” it? Or is this tremendous neuronal power simply rechanneled toward other goals, thereby making new achievements possible for today’s students? The answer is largely unknown, which is why this new emphasis on the search engine rather than engine of memory would seem to amount to a gambling act.
In many ways, this is the best time to learn. Never have students had more books available than what is scanned online. Never have there been more informative TED talks they can watch, or more MOOC courses by star lecturers they can enroll in. Yet, many potential consumers of this immense body of knowledge may be too distracted to truly benefit from it. If they lose the taste for words, develop an allergy to grammar, compress their attention spans, and become impatient with the time and space it takes to develop an idea, all the “big data” at their fingertips may prove of limited value, like a wasted resource for a generation that won’t know what to do with it. A frowny emoji would seem apropos here.