This Just In: Internet Makes Kids Dumb

If you’re a teacher, you may have already suspected this after seeing huge numbers of your students submit papers copied and pasted from Wikipedia or some other website. But to be fair, that’s just laziness, not stupidity. Now there is a study out claiming that there is a real learning crisis resulting from student use of the internet because kids have no idea how to evaluate the information they find online.

The bogus website has this image of a "Tree Octopus hat from 1923."

Researchers constructed a website with information about a non-existent animal called a “tree octopus” that supposedly lives in the Pacific Northwest and is in danger of extinction from human encroachment on its habitat as well as predation from other species such as–get this–the sasquatch. (In fact, hoaxers constructed another page exploring the alleged tension between tree octopus and sasquatch values.)

The next step was to assign seventh-grade students to research the tree octopus. Naturally, the kids all found the site and came back with reports on why it’s so important to take action on behalf of this endangered species. The kicker is that even after the researchers explained to the children that they’d been had, the kids refused to believe them and continued to insist that the tree octopus is real and needs to be saved. After all, it was on the internet so it must be true, right?

After you stop laughing (and I did for a long time!), consider the implications here. The study’s authors argue that kids are insufficiently prepared to separate wheat from chaff online. Some who have responded to the study say that it’s not a specifically online problem; rather, it’s evidence of a more general lack of critical thinking skills among youth.

At any rate, I’m playing it safe . . . no child internet use at my house. That will keep the dumbness from grabbing them.

[Thanks to Robert Woods for alerting me to this story.]

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About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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24 Responses to This Just In: Internet Makes Kids Dumb

  1. TopCat2x2 says:

    An interesting article and a theme that seems to come around with every generation. Children facing one learning crisis or another. Each generation has faced challenges that were usually equated to some lacking in the school system or family situation. The internet is a tool, just like a library, computer/programs, research, a notebook and pen, and so on. Children need to be taught how to use these tools and how to evaluate the relevance of a topic or task.

    When I was young my family had a tradition that each of us talked about our day at the dinner table. For me and my sisters, we were encouraged to talk about anything that seemed important or confusing. Things about school, people we dealt with during the day, books we were reading, concepts coming from peers. I can honestly say a lot of misconceptions were cleared up at that dinner table. What a relief my ten-year-old best girlfriend was not going to get pregnant because a boy had kissed her lol.

    The internet is just another instrument that can be powerfully good or bad, depending on its use? It’s up to parents and the school system to start teaching children at a young age how to use these tools, the right way to research a topic or develop information to debate on either side of an issue. If parents aren’t happy with the school system then create your own research project for your child(ren) and discuss at the dinner table the child’s approach and follow through for the day. What better time to correct any misconceptions or weak leads and offer praise for a good start and a fun challenge for tomorrow.

    By the way, I thought the tree octopus website was really well done! 🙂

  2. Fred Jewell says:

    So the internet takes its place alongside books, radio, movies (which, come to think of it, it is an amalgamation of). Can’t say I’m surprised.

  3. Matt Lee says:

    I often joke about my iPhone being my brain. i no longer have to memorize information, only know where/how to look it up. along with that comes being able to discriminate between the good and bad. And yes I did double space after a period in this comment.

  4. worldtake says:

    I agree with what you say, but I think the bigger issue is the fact that not doing actual research is hard work — hard mental work and hard mental work is what builds the intellect. The brain is like a muscle and if you do things the easy way, just like with muscles, you won’t have much of one.
    TV paved the way to the road of stupid in modern society, by training kids to not have an attention span longer that the short segments between commercials, to the point that by the time the internet came along the attention span was reduced to a maximum of about three minutes. Now the attention span is reduced to 140 characters. We are headed for a true idiocrocy.

  5. Pingback: The Age of Stupid « worldtake

  6. jrwhIII says:

    Dr. J, et al.,

    I wonder what we could teach students about valid research.

    I recognize that, one the one hand, people lie. I also recognize, on the other hand, that people must be able to learn and believe the truth. I see that this is a problem, and I do not mean to avoid the difficulty. But, I will point out that it may be more difficult than it may appear at first.

    Consider this question: why do you trust these researchers? They call it a study, but what these researchers have done (if we believe them) is manipulate young people, through deception, for their own ends. Their ends may have been increased knowledge, and they may have revealed what they did afterward, but are they part of the solution rather than the problem?

    If a student was writing a paper on the affects of the use of the internet on students, should we accept their citation of these researchers? If so, why? What makes these researchers trustworthy? They’ve already written one phony website.

    Sincerely,

    John Hiner III

    • Dr. J says:

      I suppose the same could be said of any psychological research where any amount of deception is involved: the famous experiment where subjects were led to believe that they were administering electrical shocks to a person, or any research done on placebos, etc.

  7. The issue is not the research, but the synthesis of the research. When people had to look things up in actual books, they could not just paste the information into research papers, they had to build their own actual sentences. This is a difficult task, that exercises the brain — cutting and pasting exercises the fingers, while building a nation peopled by robotic morons.
    Also, your dismissal of psychological research reveals a serious ignorance of the subject.

    • Dr. J says:

      Ross, I think you may have misinterpreted my comment. I was not dismissing psychological research. I was merely pointing out that if we are to question the validity of this study because the researchers misled the students, consistency would require that we extend the same skepticism to any research where deception is involved.

      Also, let’s remember there have been plenty of students who copied reports out of encyclopedias and the like before the internet came along.

      • jrwhIII says:

        Dr. J, Ross, et al.

        Exactly. I think that kind of skepticism is called for. In fact, I know someone personally who was an intern for a highly regarded psychologist, and she watched him fudge his numbers to get the results he wanted.

        I guess the question is: if we are going to call kids dumb for accepting what they read, what do we call them smart for doing?

        The practice of synthesizing what one has understood is important, but does it solve the problem this study is bringing up?

        Sincerely,

        John Hiner III

  8. worldtake says:

    The fact is however that deception in psychological research has shown to be very effective in getting results in numerous studies for many years — results that could not have been obtained if the persons being experimented on new the truth behind the study. Maybe you should read this article and this one as well, for a better understanding of the use of deception in psychological studies, before you make your critique of such based on one study.

  9. egills says:

    ( please accept my apologies for bursting in from nowhere ).

    I did have to look up how old 7th graders would be, but surely parents are checking and still helping their kids to do their research etc for homework? I know I did with both my boys ( much to their disgust ). Or even allowing 12-13yr olds internet access without keeping an eye on what they’re doing.

    As for telling a teenager they’re wrong – well…. The sky could be falling down but if a friend tells them different ….

  10. jrwhIII says:

    Worldtake,

    Arguing that deception can lead to gain on the part of the deceiver and his friends is hardly a convincing approach to the problem. Of course one can gain (in a certain sense) from deception. If no one could, we wouldn’t be tempted to deceive.

    The problem remains (and it includes more than researchers) that if someone is willing to lie, they cannot be trusted.

    I will attempt to simplify my question:

    If people lie, how do we teach kids how to choose who to trust?

    I have a vague sense that the answer is being assumed, but I don’t know what it is.

    Sincerely,

    John Hiner III

  11. scatteredsunlight says:

    What type of discernment and critical teaching skills are we advocating when we allow a 21st century student to simply combine library sources for the traditional research paper? How much better served would that student be if he spent that time understanding the basics to interpreting the validity and reliability of an internet source? Like it or not, everything will eventually be online during this student’s lifetime. Wouldn’t we rather that he know how to filter this information than go to the library and find a few sources to simply please his teachers? I think teachers are running from this task, not because of their love the traditional research paper, but because of their fear of charting the unknown? What’s more difficult: Giving a student a checklist, or teaching a student how to think? Why are we not doing this? Are we going to be the forerunners, or are we going to wait?

    I will forever think that synthesizing information is important, but as a high school teacher I’m losing my zeal to teach the old school research paper. It just seems senseless in today’s society. I realize they will have to hunt through the stacks on the graduate level, but wouldn’t we rather them get there with a head on their shoulders?

  12. worldtake says:

    Again,
    The brain is like a muscle. The reason why kids want to use the internet as opposed to traditional research in books is because it is easier and quicker. Easy and quick does not build critical thinking skills and general intelligence. People in general, will become less intelligent the more they rely on the easy way of doing things. The brain needs the exercise.

  13. scatteredsunlight says:

    Worldtake,

    With that kind of logic, we should be going back to typewriters. Using something that is better and more convenient does not cause brain atrophy. It’s our job to integrate the critical skills alongside the internet, which is here to stay.

  14. worldtake says:

    Better? I disagree with you completely scattered. I don’t have a problem with using any kind of keyboard to produce papers. My problem is not having to work the brain to get the information to write the papers. The fact is that standards of what is expected from our students on all levels — from elementary school to college, has been steadily lowered as the world has become more and more peopled by passive viewers, cutters and pasters.
    Fewer and shorter reports are expected and the standards for achieving GPA have steadily lowered. My best friends are both tenured English professors at an esteemed university in Texas, and we have talked for hours on this very subject. They claim that each year for the 12 years they have been teaching literature at their campus their students have each year, become less and less able to think in any complex way and are so addicted to their personal electronic devices that they exhibit withdrawal symptoms when not allowed to access them during a 45 minute class period.
    They(my friends) have given countless examples of students in their honors English Literature program turning in papers filled with gems like ” We can take it for granite, that it is a doggy dog world.” I will grant that the dog truly is eating the dog.
    My logic?

  15. scatteredsunlight says:

    I, like your esteemed friends, have also discussed this with fellow educators for hours on end. In the end, we will just have to agree to disagree, but I cannot dismiss this false dichotomy that either students are critical thinkers, or they are technology users. The two CAN coexist. Will this be more work on the teacher? Certainly. But, there’s no other option.

  16. worldtake says:

    Not sure how this works, but in my email, there was a response from Dr. J. and then the post itself says something else. Are Dr. J and Scattered Light the same person?
    Anyway,

    Dr. J
    I am a teacher and have been so for about 26 years and I agree that most kids will be lazy if allowed. It is not them being lazy that causes the lowered intelligence, it is being allowed to practice laziness in the classroom or anywhere that causes it. Also, teachers using power-point to give their presentations — multiple studies have shown that people do not retain information when information is presented in this way — are themselves modeling laziness for the students. It is possible to design a power-point that can be beneficial, if it is designed so the students must interact with it. If not, the information goes in the eyes and apparently never hits the brain.

    Scattered Light,
    I agree that this whole thing is not that simple. Not all kids who use and rely on technology become dull as a result – just most of them. In fact if you check with the true geeks — the ones that really understand the technology — not just how to use the devices to blast out 140 character mundane communications with fellow dullards, but the ones who know how the things work inside and out and can program them as well. I guarantee you that these kids have good critical thinking skills, can actually read and using technology for them increases their brain power, because doing what they do is hard brain work.
    The proof is in the pudding. Kids are getting dumber every year and something is causing it. The media tends to blame teachers for this. I blame the lack of work that is expected from the kids and what is modeled in their homes. Those kids whose parents read to them and model reading as an important activity in the home, are the ones who become readers and critical thinkers. Those parents who model sitting around and passively watching mindless TV shows and surfing the web, will just add to de-evolution of the collective intellect.
    We are headed for a world that is peopled with a few people with intellect — the technological elite who will be necessary, because without their intelect, where will we get all of the new technological junk we crave — and the dull masses.

    • Dr. J says:

      I’m not sure what your email is showing you, but I hadn’t commented on this thread for almost two weeks until now, so I suspect your comments addressed to me are probably actually for someone else.

      Scattered Sunlight and I are not the same person; I can tell from her Gravatar image that she’s much better looking than I.

  17. Kevin Montresor says:

    Totally dumb. Internet makes us smarter. I’m sort of biased because I am 14, but I am majorly offended by all of these old people saying that our generation is stupid.

  18. Look, my dad doesn’t understand google at all. School work is getting considerably harder, and teachers consistently pile on more homework. My dad probably never did 3 hours of homework in 9th grade. Or had to write 5 page papers. He probably didn’t take geometry until 11th grade. (I’m taking it now). The work is much harder, and we have to work harder than any other generation.

    • Lady SaigaRachel says:

      Yes, your dad did have to do those things. I did, too. Your dad, however, was taught how to approach his sources critically. The students in this study did not think critically; they parroted both data and conclusions they found online. Having lots of work is not a good reason to do bad work, and internet sources are rarely able to do much more than point a student in the direction of more areas of research; they are very rarely valuable sources in and of themselves.

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