The Cost of Our Digital Addictions

Smartphones and other Internet-wired devices have shortened attention spans and created a generation of young people who don’t know what they don’t know.

Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is adapted from Matthew Hennessey’s new book, Zero Hour for Gen X: How the Last Adult Generation Can Save America from Millennials. It appears here with permission.

I’m in early middle age, still closer to 40 than 50. The impulses that I feel constantly to log in to email, to scan the headlines, to learn the latest — all of that is new. It’s a recent development. Very recent. I never used to be this way. I spent hours as a teenager and young adult looking at baseball cards and hockey stickers, flipping through newspapers and old magazines that filled baskets in odd corners of the house, examining and experimenting with the tools on my father’s workbench, playing Dungeons & Dragons with my neighborhood friends and Wiffle ball and basketball with my little brother, or noodling around on the cheap guitar that I never quite mastered. I memorized entire scenes from movies. I wrote long-hand journal entries in a notebook, jotted down ideas, poems, sketches, and song lyrics. Never once did I feel the uncontrollable urge to run to the mailbox to see if anything special and addressed to me had been unexpectedly delivered. Sure, I sometimes waited eagerly for the phone to ring. Everyone did in those days. But the phone rang or it didn’t. I was expecting a call or I wasn’t. I didn’t repeatedly pick it up to check if someone was trying to get through. The Internet has trained me to do all that, and it did so in just the past few years.

The technological changes that I’ve witnessed in my short lifetime have been revolutionary in scope and scale. I was born, raised, and have lived most of my life so far using the same basic analog communications technology that Franklin Roosevelt did: the telephone, the radio, the pen, the postcard, the phonograph record. Sure, Gen Xers had television. FDR didn’t have that. But television has always been a one-way street. It’s for entertainment, not for communication, and, at least until recently, it was linear, time-limited. You made an appointment to watch television. The show you were looking for was on at a specific hour. You couldn’t take it with you. You couldn’t dip in and out. If you missed it, well, you missed it. You could check your local listings to see if it would be replayed, but otherwise you were flat out of luck.

Television was even in those days much maligned. No one has ever said that watching a lot of television is good for you. But knowing what we know now, you have to admit: In its own way, television required a certain amount of discipline.

Devices such as the telephone and television — what I call “analog” tools, to distinguish them from the “digital” tools that we are enslaved by today — cultivated patience. Is that possible? We were told back then that television was destroying us, ruining our ability to sustain concentration by presenting shows in attention-span-crushing 30-minute blocks. What would you give to be able to concentrate for 30 straight minutes on a single thing today?

Perhaps we needed some distance to appreciate it, but the telephone and the television did reinforce the benefits of patience. It was their prime virtue apart from keeping us entertained, informed, and connected. You wanted to see what happened to Scully and Mulder in the next episode of The X-Files, so you put it on your calendar and turned on the TV at the appointed time. Someone said they would call at 7:30, so you cleared a block of time to chat with them at 7:30. You sent someone a letter; you waited for a reply. Sometimes you waited a long time — a really long time. Like children opting to forgo a single marshmallow now for two marshmallows later, you knew that the waiting was good for you. Good things come to those who wait.

The constant waiting cultivated in young people an inherent understanding that media consumption was in some sense a reward for a day spent productively. You got your homework done before The Cosby Show came on. You called your friends when the dishes were put away. You went down in the basement and sat on the rug and listened to your records after you cut the grass. Work first; then play. This, then the other. Of course, not everyone did it this way. In some homes the television was on all day. In some homes there was no television. But, in the main, the technology that was both available and widespread was treated as a tool. You used it. It didn’t use you.

Nowadays, with the Internet in our pockets, the concept of media consumption as a bit of recreation after the business of the day is done is as dated as the TV shows I namechecked in the previous paragraphs. For many of us, media — by which I mean use of any device with a screen — is the oxygen we breathe. We need it everywhere. We can’t work, play, or relax without it. Actually, it turns out that after two decades of the Internet and a decade of smartphones, we can’t even think without it.

As a 2011 Science magazine report noted, our relationship with our technological gizmos and gadgets has changed the way we recall facts and events. Some have dubbed this “the Google effect,” after the Internet search engine with the combined market dominance and cultural power of U.S. Steel, Standard Oil, and Ma Bell. Psychologists from Columbia, Harvard, and the University of Wisconsin reviewed four studies that tested how well or poorly people were able to recall information when they knew that a computer would be available to help them save or access that information. On the whole, the test subjects had a harder time recalling details when they knew that those details had been stored on a computer and that they could access them again when they needed to. In fact, they often had an easier time remembering where on the computer the information had been stored than they did remembering the information itself.

“Because search engines are continually available to us, we may often be in a state of not feeling we need to encode the information internally,” the authors of the study noted. “When we need it, we will look it up.” The reverse is also true. When we know we won’t be able to look things up, it’s easier for us to remember them. “It appears that believing that one won’t have access to the information in the future enhances memory for the information itself, whereas believing the information was saved externally enhances memory for the fact that the information could be accessed, at least in general.”

In other words, we are treating the Internet as an external brain. Our real brains know they no longer have to work as hard as they once did, so they naturally start slacking off. The social price for this transformation has been high. In a 2016 interview with C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb, the historian David McCullough sketched it out: “We’ve been told we live in the information age. And we get information in quantities such as would have been unimaginable in other times — and on an infinite variety of subjects, and all that can come instantly electronically, and in many ways you don’t have to carry any of this in your head,” he said. What’s the tradeoff? “You can just look it up, so why learn it?”

The idea that you can “just look it up” may seem a boon. The goal of a good education, after all, isn’t to fill your head with facts (although that is often a happy byproduct of a good education). Rather, someone who has been well educated knows enough to know what he doesn’t know. The problem now is that an entire generation of kids have grown up, graduated from high school and college, and are working their way through the professional world without knowing what they don’t know . . . because they don’t know anything. The ethos they have imbibed is, in fact, not to know. Knowledge is outsourceable. Google is standing at the ready, waiting to help them anytime they’re ready to “just look it up.” These are the so-called “digital natives,” born into an end-of-century wilderness just as it was wiring itself up for the leap to technological hyperspace. We call them Millennials.

The “just look it up” Millennial mindset has contributed in large measure to the dumbing down of the culture. A 2015 survey of college professors and employers commissioned by the education-reform group Achieve found that while American high schools do a decent job of preparing students to use technology and collaborate in teams, they do a far worse job of preparing them to write in plain English, think complex problems through, and understand complicated written materials or ideas. A vanishingly small percentage of professors and employers said they thought that American high-school graduates were ready to “do what was expected of them.” Why? Is it because high-school teachers are worse today than they were 70 years ago? No. It’s because most kids don’t have the ability or desire to concentrate longer than it takes to read a disappearing Snapchat. Social media and the quick-hit Internet have trained them to click away from anything that doesn’t hold their attention for more than the time it takes to yawn.

A 2014 study found that college students spend an enormous amount of time each day using smartphones and the Internet. The females studied spent ten hours every day online, while the males spent about 7.5 hours online daily. “Research suggests that media use has become such a significant part of student life that it is ‘invisible’ and students do not necessarily realize their level of dependence on and/or addiction to their cell-phones,” wrote researchers in a paper published in the Journal of Behavioral Addiction. Other researchers have studied the ability of college students to concentrate on a lecture while being barraged with text messages to which they feel obligated to respond. Those who received 16 or more texts during a 30-minute lecture scored a full letter grade lower on a post-lecture exam than those who received half as many texts. Millennials are driven to distraction by their technological addictions.

It’s affecting their grades, their performance on the job, and their ability to be present in personal relationships. But they’re so-called “digital natives,” born and raised in the Internet era, so they don’t even recognize it as a problem. It’s just life. Texting is living.

Don’t get me wrong — grown-ups these days can’t concentrate, either. A Canadian study showed that while the average human attention span was twelve seconds in 2000, nearly 20 years of Internet influence has pushed that down to eight seconds. We are all losing our ability to sustain concentration. We’re letting our focus slip, and we’ve all gone voluntarily down this path. It’s a problem if, like me, you’re in middle age, but at least a guy like me can search for solutions to the problem with the full knowledge of how things used to be — how much easier it was in the pre-Internet days to settle down with a book without thinking about your phone, or to be alone with yourself (or your family) for a few hours. If you are a high-school student in the late second decade of the 21st century — or the parent of such a child — this is not just a problem; it’s a crisis. A high-school English teacher told me recently that she watches in amazement as her students Google basic facts and information that once formed the mere minimum of what a person should know by the time he or she reached adolescence. Things are going downhill fast.



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