Videoconferencing mutilates social cognition. The average attention span of a human being fell between 2000 and 2013 from 12 to 8 seconds, which is lower than that of a goldfish. We retain less information when the texts contain hyperlinks.
And studies have reported, especially in Europe, an overall decline in intelligence quotient since 1975.
Taken together, this information seems to confirm a widely held and seemingly documented perception: technology, and the internet in particular, makes us stupid. We could add the loss of orientation ability caused by GPS, sleep disturbances caused by blue light and, why not, cyberbullying and misinformation.
So, is technology making us dumb?
Let’s first settle this claim, which has had its heyday since 2015, according to which the average human attention span fell from 12 to 8 seconds between 2000 and 2013. Attributed to Microsoft Canada and taken up by almost all major media on the planet, it is false, or at least simply unverifiable. The Microsoft Canada report does exist, but the data is attributed to an institute called Statistic Brain, which has never been able to confirm its provenance. A BBC journalist notably contacted the three organizations cited by Statistic Brain. They were also unaware of the provenance of this statistic.
In 0.46 seconds, Google offers 87.7 million answers to this question asked in English. They obviously go in all directions and can feed all theses. In 2021, Britannica Group, which has published the encyclopedia of the same name since 1768, gauged 17,000 of its readers for it. Here are two salient, seemingly contradictory points.
Proportion of respondents who consider that their ability to pay attention and concentrate has decreased since they have been on the Internet.
Proportion of respondents who are not worried that the internet will cause them to lose basic skills, such as math or map reading.
Like Internet users, scientists do not like to answer point-blank to this seemingly simple question of technology that makes people stupid. Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Addiction at the University of Montreal, Guillaume Dumas participated in a vast international study often cited as an example on the harmful effects of videoconferencing. She found that the brains of 62 mothers and their child aged 10 to 14 were less synchronized during a videoconference than face to face.
But in an interview, Professor Dumas calls for nuance to draw conclusions. “I don’t want video conferencing to be demonized, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. These technologies have nevertheless been very beneficial, we realized during the pandemic that they had many advantages. His concern is about young people’s social cognition abilities, the effects of which will not be known for years to come. ” It’s necessary to be vigilant. For toddlers who are developing their social cognition skills, the video conferencing mode might not necessarily be the best. »
In 2018, a Norwegian study found a decline in intelligence quotient from 1975, and several European countries have found the same phenomenon based on data obtained through military conscription. The causes remain unclear, and no similar study has been conducted in Canada.
Nawal Abboub, doctor in cognitive sciences from the University of Paris Cité and author of The power of babies, published last September, invites a more global reading of this phenomenon. “Meta-analyses, compilations of studies have shown us that when we look at the average IQ globally, we don’t see a decline, but an increase at a slower growing rate […] It’s rather a good thing: it means that people have access to a higher level of education. »
She believes that IQ tests have not evolved enough to reflect the evolution of society. “We’re testing things that kids aren’t trained on anymore. . . . If part of the program changes, we will have a drop, but it is not linked to the fact that intelligence drops. It’s the things that change. »
Another oft-referred to study, conducted in 2008 at the University of California, shows how a result can be interpreted differently. By recording the brain activity of 24 people doing Google searches, regulars were found to have more intense activity, particularly in the prefrontal cortex. Authors have seen in it the demonstration that this over-activity was carried out to the detriment of concentration and the acquisition of less superficial knowledge.
This is not the interpretation of Emmanuelle Parent, doctor in communication and director of the Center for Emotional Intelligence Online. “Even if we are faster, we develop critical thinking skills. These are new skills that we have learned. It is clear that our intelligence is called to evolve. »
Guillaume Dumas, also holder of the IVADO chair in artificial intelligence and mental health, is however wary of the ease with which students now have access to answers. “They can now solve exercises given to them with ChatGPT or AI in a faster way, but suddenly they don’t learn the exercise […] Students tend to be quickly happy with the result and it short-circuits the learning of critical thinking. »
It is obvious that technological innovations have made certain tasks less necessary. The effects on memory, in particular, are at the heart of many concerns. “There are skills that we need to work on less than before, and others for which we become more aware,” says Emmanuelle Parent. We remember less phone numbers and appointments, but it is less necessary than before. It’s human: we’re not stupid, we want to save that energy and put it somewhere else. »
Despite the headlines, no scientific evidence exists to link technology to the decline of our intellectual abilities, insists Tony Chemero, a professor in the departments of philosophy and psychology at the University of Cincinnati. But don’t these abilities atrophy when they are not used? “We’re very flexible,” he replies. If suddenly I don’t have internet and Google Maps, I could learn again. The first human technology was language, he analyzes, and Socrates feared that writing would wipe out memory. “What humans know how to do is adapt to different situations. Disasters can happen […], but we could manage, we are very good at it. »