Virginia Tech Urban Affairs and Planning Assistant Professor Shalini Misra recently shed some light on this subject. As a researcher focused on the psychological, health and social Implications of digital communication technology and the internet, she is all too familiar with the ways these tools can adversely affect young people. The internet makes it so easy to get information at the drop of a hat, and this passive consumption robs children of their ability to think for themselves right at the time in their development when they should be refining such skills.
According to research carried out by Misra, cyber information overload can cause young people to experience poorer health and higher stress levels compared to people their age with lower levels of information overload, and they also tend to spend less time on contemplative activities.
In addition, time spent in online interactions leaves less time available for social interactions in person that can enhance their mood and well-being. This can lead them to have lower levels of sensitivity to others and empathy. Missing out on face-to-face communication means they won’t be able to interpret non-verbal cues, facial expressions, and body language, and they won’t develop the skills to have long conversations or handle disagreements.
There is also the exposure to traumatic events to worry about; this can cause chronic anxiety and stress as children get an all-too-realistic view of frightening events they are not yet prepared to cope with emotionally.
The multi-tasking and distraction that comes from using digital tools have serious developmental and intellectual consequences, she says. Depending on digital tools to find answers means young people won’t ever be able to find them on their own, depriving them of the ability to focus for long periods of time and concentrate on tasks that require a lot of effort.
This phenomenon is becoming a big problem at universities, where many students are using their devices during lectures. The multitasking causes their performance to slide as they switch attention back and forth, and there is evidence that using media in class leads to poorer academic performance. It also has a negative impact on their ability to concentrate on anything over long periods as they become accustomed to switching to other stimuli any time their lecture gets hard to follow rather than concentrating and trying to make sense of it.
Indeed, some schools are banning the use of devices in classes and lectures to help foster engagement and attentiveness and help students improve their critical thinking skills. A University of Waterloo study found that those who use their smartphones more frequently use their brains less frequently, and the reverse is also true. On top of that, using search engines like Google to find information promotes cognitive laziness and reduces problem-solving skills. It also gives people an overblown sense of their own intelligence, as studies have proven.
There is no doubt that the internet is helping spread knowledge, giving people access to important information that they might not otherwise be aware of. One need only consider the ways that companies influence the mainstream media or Big Pharma influences doctors to understand the importance of having access to the wealth of knowledge shared online. At the same time, however, becoming too dependent on this treasure trove of information is something that will only hurt not only young people but also humanity at large over time if steps aren’t taken to counteract the mental laziness sites like Facebook and Google tend to create.