Project Literacy Communities

Science Says the Internet Is Turning Us into Shallow Thinkers. Here’s Why That’s a Problem.

by Natalie Costa

August 26, 2015
Students study in Starbucks. Image via Nicole Sapiens de Mitri.

It wasn’t so long ago that a student in search of information—population statistics, perhaps, or a comprehensive geographic breakdown—had no choice but to turn to a printed resource like an encyclopedia, textbook, or academic journal. Though the information was valid at the time of publication, it might’ve been a bit out of date; still, most would agree such sources were generally credible and relatively unbiased.

But the very last copy of Encyclopedia Britannica was printed more than three years ago, and we’ve got an endless stream of information at our fingertips: real-time updates from social media, breaking news alerts, and actual raw data from mobile apps that anyone, from anywhere around the world, can access or update. American students today are digital natives—they’ve never known life without the internet—and as of 2014, at least a third of them in grades six through 12 use school-provided mobile devices to complete their coursework.

Over the last twenty years or so, there has been a lot of hemming and hawing about whether the internet makes us stupid, or whether it makes us smarter. In many ways, it seems the answer is both. After all, the internet is just a tool, not unlike the telephone or pen and paper. Yet, as indicated by a study released in Neuroscientist just last month, our cognition skills are actually reshaped by our digital behaviors, including how well we assess the integrity of all that information we’re clicking on. 

That’s even more true for digital natives, who in a significant way have become accustomed to receiving quick, highly targeted answers on demand. It’s not hard to see why instant gratification so frequently wins out over critical evaluation of sources. But all those shifts in focus—clicking away or swiping left the moment interest fades—result in “less rigorous,” shallower and “automatic” thinking, along with "weaknesses in higher-order cognitive processes," including "abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination."

According to “The Digital Natives Debate: A Critical Review of the Evidence,” published in The British Journal of Educational Technology:

When observing students interacting with text obtained from an Internet search, Sutherland-Smith … reported that many were easily frustrated when not instantly gratified in their search for immediate answers and appeared to adopt a ‘snatch and grab philosophy’... Similarly, Eagleton, Guinee and Langlais … observed middle-school students often making ‘hasty, random choices with little thought and evaluation’. 

Such choices can lead to less than reliable information from nefarious sources or even well-intentioned ones, like Wikipedia—which, though often less subjective than other sources due to its consensus-based approach—still requires a critical eye. The Harvard Guide to Using Resources suggests that “there's nothing more convenient than Wikipedia if you're looking for some quick information … when the stakes are low,” but ultimately discourages students from using the “unreliable” resource as anything other than a starting point. 

Critically evaluating any source of information is a key component of resource literacy, which both the American Library Association and Wikipedia define as “the ability to understand the form, format, location and methods for accessing information resources.” According to Danah Boyd in her book The Secret Lives of Networked Teens, resource literacy is a crucial skill: “Whether in school or in informal settings, youth need opportunities to develop the skills and knowledge to engage with temporary technology effectively and meaningfully. Becoming literate in a networked age requires hard work...”

Just as literacy in its purest form expands the scale of opportunities among adults, so too does resource literacy. Indeed, the ability to consciously use and interact with resources in the digital space encourages a user’s growth, which is why initiatives like Project Information Literacy (PIL) have risen to prominence. The goal of PIL is “to understand how early adults conceptualize and operationalize research activities for course work and ‘everyday life’ use and especially how they resolve issues of credibility, authority, relevance, and currency in the digital age.” 

Infographic via Project Information Literacy.

According to PIL’s research, about half of today’s college graduates say that evaluating the credibility of digital sources is important on the job. And it’s true that in the business world, resource literacy isn’t merely “nice to have” anymore. Perhaps because there’s a shortage of it, entire specialized professions have evolved to become dependent on resource literacy. The day-to-day tasks associated with new job titles like knowledge managers or communications specialists consist of leveraging one’s proficiency in evaluating available resources, managing knowledge for use in business proposals, and developing general communication briefs.

Nicole Sirdoreus, a senior communications specialist for a large healthcare corporation, explains her role this way: “I think knowledge management requires solid research skills; that is, understanding how people are going to look something up, what words they might use to do so, and what contexts they might use it in. That way, people can access the right information quickly and easily.” She adds, “I think as long as you know how to do research, and use more than keywords, you can use any resources available to you.”

Echoing this sentiment is Bess Auer, founder of the Florida Blogger and Social Media Conference, a forum that celebrates the power of the digital landscape by gathering thought leaders to explore new trends across any type of media. An advocate for resource literacy, Auer says that for people of all ages and in any profession, “becoming digitally literate doesn’t just open a world of resources… It also opens a world of opportunity.” 

So what’s a digital native who’d like to become more mindful about consuming information to do? According to PIL, there’s no one way to hone that skillset. It’s a fluid process, requiring constant re-visitation and adaptation of one’s attention span, along with a willingness to dig a little deeper. Even those who have made a career out of resource literacy are never truly “done.” A good place to start might be with a program like Reading Rockets—a national multimedia literacy initiative mostly focused on traditional reading and writing skills—that offers resources and tips for increasing text comprehension, whether that text appears on paper or on a screen. (No matter how old you are, you’ll benefit from another look at the logic chain in anything you read.)

Otherwise, it’s really just about staying vigilant. As digital advocate Craig Hammer has argued, approaching the vast amount of information we encounter every day with a critical eye is incredibly important, on a personal as well as a societal level. Data, Hammer says, is becoming more accessible to masses of people everywhere, not only reference librarians or specialized researchers. And in a lot of ways, that’s a great and positive thing. Opening up information can be empowering.

But isn’t enough. “As governments continue to open data the world over, there needs to be a stronger emphasis on enabling ‘mass mobilizers’ and ultimately the public to… unleash the true power of open data—to [turn it into] actionable intelligence,” he says. In other words, we’ve got to really understand information before we can use it to change the world. 

To wit, data collected for the United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe indicates that there is a global, adult illiterate population of 775 million—which impacts health, gender equality, and development for everyone, everywhere. So let’s start to focus on those "mass mobilizers," the people who can facilitate literacy on a global scale, and start making even the most basic of resources accessible, and comprehensible, to the general public. If educators, parents, and government officials encourage us to evaluate information, we will instill the habit of critical thinking for future generations. 

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Science Says the Internet Is Turning Us into Shallow Thinkers. Here’s Why That’s a Problem.