The internet has become an ubiquitous phenomenon over the course of the past decade, to the point that younger people may not even be able to imagine how life must have been before its advent. Important questions can be asked, though, regarding the relationship between the internet on the one hand and human cognition on the other, especially as this pertains to intelligence and social skills with respect to children. This sample psychological essay provided by Ultius will examine the impact that the information age has had upon developing children.
Intelligence defined as access to information
The internet now allows users to access more or less any information they want, on any subject, within a matter of seconds. For example, whereas a professional researcher in the past would have needed to scour physical libraries for hours or even days to find the material he needed, it is now all instantly available through platforms such as Google Scholar and online academic databases like JSTOR.
The same is true for the general public, including children: whatever they would like to find out, they are now able to find out, and with a minimal expenditure of effort. The internet has now largely been integrated by educators in blended learning programs where multiple forms of media are used in teaching. So, insofar as access to information is understood as a prerequisite of the development of intelligence, it would be difficult to deny the idea that the internet, in this sense at least, has afforded children the opportunity to become more intelligent.
Internet use as a cognition builder
Moreover, given the very nature of the skills needed for navigating the internet in an effective way, children are likely to develop broader cognitive skills that transcend the specific skill of accessing information. As Packard has written:
“To help children winnow the tree octopus sites from legitimate information, they must develop online reading comprehension skills, These skills are particularly crucial because other researchers have found that children go online to clarify what they’re being taught in school” (paragraph 12).
Relatedly, the research has also tended to indicate that when children are given free access to the internet, their reading skills tend to improve. The main idea is that navigating the internet inherently requires an adequate level of literacy; and immersed in the virtual environment, children are likely to develop this skill in a relatively natural way.
The internet bolsters curiosity
The suggestion could also be made that the internet could fulfill the role of stoking the child’s intellectual curiosity, which is a fundamental driver of the development of intelligence (Gold). If the child is aware that there is an unfathomable immensity of information available to him right at his fingertips, then he will be more likely to want to actually begin exploring that information; and in doing so, he will not only acquire information in particular but also engage in the broader learning process in general. This basic comfort with learning itself is one of the key markers of intelligence, as is the desire to actually learn. In this sense, by enabling the child to access information, the internet provides the child with both the raw information that is needed for intelligence to develop as well as an incentive for the child to begin engaging with the learning process in a self-directed way.
Intelligence as critical and synthetic thinking
Thus far, it has been suggested that the internet can improve the child’s intelligence by providing him with access to information. However, the very nature and structure of the internet are such that they may well prevent higher-order cognitive skills from fully coming to fruition. Carr has put the matter astutely:
“Today, the internet grants us easy access to unprecedented amounts of information. But a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the Net, with its constant distractions and interruptions, is also turning us into scattered and superficial thinkers. The picture . . . is deeply troubling, at least to anyone who values the depth, rather than just the velocity, of human thought” (paragraph 2).
Carr’s point is that the Internet, by making a virtually infinite amount of information instantly available to people in general and children in particular, the Internet encourages them to focus on the breadth of the learning experience rather than its depth: people may develop a superficial understanding of a hundred different topics, but a truly deep and thorough understanding of none.
Potential detriments to internet learning
In other words, the internet does not by any means facilitate the development of critical and synthetic thinking. In and of itself, the structure of the internet is more or less chaotic, with radically unrelated pieces of information being just as close to the fingertips of the child as more cogently connected pieces of information. There is also the concern of a decline in communication skills due to technological detachment. In order to synthesize all the information into a coherent pattern and thereby extract real meaning from the information, the child would need to bring his own cognitive skills to bear on the internet if he is to create order out of chaos. This presupposes, though, that the child has in fact learned these skills elsewhere, and not on the internet. If the child’s mind develops in accordance with the parameters of the just the internet itself, then he will never develop such higher-order cognitive skills, due to the fact these skills are structural in nature and cannot be easily derived simply from exposure to a massive amount of intellectual content.
Carr has evocatively suggested what happens when a given person encounters the internet without the requisite higher-order capacities of synthetic thinking and filtering:
“When we’re constantly distracted and interrupted, as we tend to be online, our brains are unable to forge the strong and expansive neural connections that give depth and distinctiveness to our thinking. We become mere signal-processing units, quickly shepherding disjointed bits of information into and then out of short-term memory” (paragraph 6).
In other words, the danger is that children will end up becoming “intelligent” in the same superficial sense that computers themselves are intelligent. What would be lost is the depth, power, and originality of thought that are the hallmarks of truly human cognition. In order to achieve this higher kind of intelligence, children would need to be conditioned by other humans, and then bring their human skills to bear on the internet; they cannot merely be allowed to be conditioned by the internet itself.
Intelligence in relation to social skills
The above section of the present essay has made it clear that the relationship between the internet and intelligence is by no means a purely positive one; rather, if the perspective is expanded to consider higher-order cognition, then the role of the internet in this regard is a decidedly ambivalent one. Now, turning attention to intelligence as defined in terms of social and emotional skills and competence, the relationship between the internet, social networking and intelligence becomes a decidedly negative one, especially in children. This is due to the fact that the kind of intelligence cultivated by the internet in truth has little to do with the kind needed for living within the material, interpersonal world; and as people invest themselves more and more into the virtual world, they become less and less adept at truly experiencing the real one.
Digital media breeds isolation
Lewis has written the following in this connection:
“The increasing use of digital and screen-based media may be impairing children’s ability to develop social skills, as they have less opportunity for face-to-face interaction, according to a new study. With digital media use beginning at earlier ages, researchers say it is imperative to understand the effects of such engagement” (paragraph 1).
The study in question isolated students from digital media use; and after a mere matter of days, it was found that these children became more adept at recognizing nonverbal emotions on the faces of other persons. The clear implication would be that engagement with digital media tends to impair emotional intelligence. Likewise, Fowlkes has pointed out that increasingly, both children and adults prefer to spend their time on social media, as opposed to actually meeting with their friends in a face-to-face way.
The internet as a source of discontent
Moreover, there is not even evidence that this kind of engagement with the internet is actually making children any happier; in fact, the contrary would seem to be true. Harmann et al., for example, have found that:
- When children misrepresent themselves on the internet (idealize themselves or take on a persona, for example), they suffer from a wide range of negative emotional and psychological effects in real life.
- As children spend increasing amounts of time online and especially on social media, though, such misrepresentations become almost inevitable, as the line between fantasy and reality begins to blur.
- As children become ever more engaged with this virtual world of social media, they also begin to experience depression and anxiety as a result of taking the misrepresentations of their peers at face value, while at the same time realizing that their own lives are not matching up with the extraordinary images shared by their peers (Konnikova).
These scenarios further erode social and emotional intelligence—and even rational or cognitive intelligence, insofar as a depressed or anxious child would clearly be less able or willing to engage with the learning process than a healthy one.
In the relationship between the internet and intelligence in children, the nature of the relationship depends on the terms by which intelligence is defined. If intelligence is defined simply in terms of the desire to seek and access information, then the internet has clearly made children more intelligent. If intelligence is defined in terms of higher-order capacities such as critical and synthetic thinking, then the internet is neutral at best and could potentially cause harm if it becomes primarily responsible for conditioning the cognitive processes of children as well as implementing elements of classical conditioning in teaching children that disjointed facts are knowledge. If intelligence is defined in terms of social and emotional competence, then the internet is currently in the process of causing actual harm, insofar as the mode of not only cognition but also living that is catalyzed by the modern internet age is often at odds with the modes of cognition and living that are needed in order to develop social and emotional competence.
What can be said about the internet is that it is an extremely powerful tool that could potentially help enhance all forms of intelligence—but only if it is contained and utilized in accordance with the right kinds of human values. For example:
- Social media use could clearly add a dimension, or layer, of meaning and depth to one’s social life through social networks and in society in general; but this would only be the case insofar as one’s social media use is integrated with one’s actual life in the world.
- The internet provides an immense amount of raw material upon which synthetic thinking can operate—but this would only be the case insofar as the internet user already has a strong mind that is capable of processing the wide array of information in an effective way.
In the end, as with any tool, it is not the internet which makes people more intelligent or less intelligent; it is people who do that to themselves. What is really needed, then, is a critical evaluation of the role that the internet should play within the broader context of human living.
Carr, Nicholas. “Does the Internet Make You Dumber?” Wall Street Journal. 5 Jun. 2010. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.
Fowlkes, Jasmine “Viewpoint: Why Social Media Is Destroying Our Social Skills.” USA Today. 11 Oct. 2012. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. why-social-media-is-destroying-our-social-skills/>.
Gold, Jodi. “Yes, the Internet Can Make Your Kids Smarter, Happier, and Kinder.” Washington Post. 27 Feb. 2015. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. and-kinder/>.
Harman, Jeffrey P., et al. “Liar, Liar: Internet Faking but Not Frequency of Use Affects Social Skills, Self-Esteem, Social Anxiety, and Aggression,” CyberPsychology & Behavior 8.1 (2005): 1-6. Print.
Lewis, Renee “Digital Media Erodes Social Skills in Children.” Al Jazeera America. 22 Aug. 2014. Web 16 Nov. 2015. skills.html>.
Konnikova, Maria. “How Facebook Makes People Unhappy.” New Yorker. 10 Sep. 2015. Web. 28 Jul. 2015. unhappy>.
Packard, Erika. “It’s Fun, But Does It Make You Smarter?” Monitor on Psychology 38.10 (2007). Web. 16 Nov. 2015. http://www.apa.org/monitor/nov07/itsfun.aspx>.