On average web browsers spend less than 10 seconds looking at a page.

There is a new body of scientific evidence emerging that shows the dangers of over exposure to the internet and ‘instant’ information, especially in adolescents. The attention span and ability to focus and concentrate seems to be diminished in those who spend copious amounts of time on the computer and other multimedia.

This is alarming news considering the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) found that American children between 2 and 18 years of age spend, on average, a staggering 6 hours and 32 minutes each day using media (television, commercial or self-recorded video, movies, video games, print, radio, recorded music, computer, and the Internet).

Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember said “People who read text studded with links, the studies show, comprehend less than those who read words printed on pages. People who watch busy multimedia presentations remember less than those who take in information in a more sedate and focused manner.”

Research suggests that the continual stimulation the brain receives when interacting with multimedia and its distractions and interruptions is creating scattered and superficial thoughts, which in turn creates a very short attention span. Our thoughts become disjointed and our memories weak.

Studies into how the tools we use to think with, our information technologies, shape our mind have come up with 4 important results:

  1. People who read text studded with links, comprehend less than those who read words printed on pages.
  2. People who watch busy multimedia presentations remember less than those who take in information in a more sedate and focused manner.
  3. People who are continually distracted by emails, updates and other messages understand less than those who are able to concentrate.
  4. People who juggle many tasks are often less creative and less productive than those who do one thing at a time.

Mr Carr said the problem seems to lie in how new media divides our attention; commonly known as ‘multi tasking’. The richness of our thoughts, our memories and even our personalities hinges on our ability to focus the mind and sustain concentration.

The Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel realised that we need to pay close attention to new information if we want to associate it ”meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory”, such associations are essential to mastering complex concepts and thinking critically.

A 2009 article in Science, Technology and Informal Education: What Is Taught, What Is Learned by Patricia Greenfield (Department of Psychology, University of California) examined how different media technologies influence our cognitive abilities.

She found that the informal learning environments of television, video games, and the internet are producing young people with a new profile of cognitive skills. This profile features widespread and sophisticated development of visual-spatial skills, such as iconic representation and spatial visualization.

However she also advised that schools should compensate for new weaknesses this caused in higher-order cognitive processes: abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination.

This deeper level of cognitive skills develop through the use of an older technology, reading, which, along with audio media such as radio, also stimulates imagination.

In one experiment at an American university, half a class of students was allowed to use internet-connected laptops during a lecture, while the other had to keep their computers shut. Those who browsed the web and ‘multitasked’ performed much worse on a subsequent test of how well they retained the lecture’s content.

The pioneering neuroscientist and a professor emeritus at the University of California in San Francisco, Michael Merzenich, believes that our brains are being ”massively remodelled” by our ever-intensifying use of the web and related media. The long-term effect on the quality of our intellectual lives, he said, could be ”deadly”.

A policy statement by the AAP, urges parents to create an “electronic media-free” environment in children’s rooms and avoid using the television as a bed-sitter.

Writer Helen Splarn. Editor Dr Ramesh Manocha
Source: Daily Telegraph, London