Skimming and Skyping: the distracted generation

Facebook, iPads, ringtones, clicks. The advent of instant communication has made it ever easier to keep in touch with our friends and family. We receive the latest news straight away. We track down academic research far faster than our forebears.

Yet they also spell serious trouble for the way our minds work.  Numerous studies suggest that we have become less effective at digesting information. Instead of turning a dog-eared page, lost deep in thought, we are now scrolling down a webpage, distracted. If not by hyperlinks, then by adverts that know increasingly more about us, or our smartphone ringing, or one of our friends messaging us on Facebook…

How often do you finish a web article? Honesty, please. The distractions are endless. We skim, skip and glide along the text before a link or video pulls us in the other direction. You go online to download an essential article for your history essay – five minutes later, you’re watching YouTube videos of cats doing funny things. While cats can be funny, they don’t help with your essay on the dynamic of religious change in Tudor England due the next morning.

We are becoming an increasingly distracted generation, one with the remarkable ability to do nothing with the world of information that lies at our fingertips.

The cause, it seems, is the internet. Not its content, mind you, but the very medium itself. “Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators, and web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracting thinking,” writes Nicholas Carr, author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember. “It’s possible to think deeply while

surfing the net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards.”

Instead, the internet rewards repetitive and intensive actions. Our minds adapt to the medium we predominantly use to process information – neurobiologists attribute this to our brains’ ‘plasticity’. Online, a barrage of interuptions scatter our thoughts and weaken our memory.

How many of us actually read physical books anymore? “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words,” laments Carr. “Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.” He is not alone. We increasingly feel the need to be connected, to interrupt other work.

Research suggests that books – at the very least – encourage deep, linear thought. We follow the thread of the sentence and argument as they logically unfold before us. Regular reading has been known to generate activity in parts of the brain associated with language, memory and visual processing.

I am no Luddite. Technology won’t disappear anytime soon, and the benefits of the internet and instant communication outweigh the costs. We read, socialise, shop and bank online. We can download music and stream movies. Our personal and professional lives depend on being connected.

But we need to learn to put a harness on the tools that link us to the wider world. As we start a new year at Oxford, let us define the parameters of use. Channel and concentrate the flows of information in short spurts. Be more productive with them. Turn off your smartphone as you step into the Bodleian. Deactivate your Facebook profile until the dissertation is finished.

And don’t turn your back on the paperback or library just yet. At the very least, they offer a refuge from the deluge of information that swamps our everyday lives. The Bodleian has been around for over four hundred years; chances are it will be around for another four hundred. So switch off, sit back and open the page. Your mind will thank you for it.

Photo/The Hamster