Is Your Smartphone Making You Dumber?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Academics, technology experts, journalists, and consumers often disagree about whether technology and the always-on access to people and information it affords are making us smarter and more capable of solving problems, or less intelligent, less curious, and less well-equipped to face intellectual challenges.

But it’s difficult to measure how modern innovations like the Internet and smartphones are affecting the broader population’s ability to think critically and problem-solve. So as a proxy for that question, we can ask a simpler one: How do the growing rates of technology use affect teens? The continual research into teens and their tech habits, plus the data on how well they perform on every high school student’s most-dreaded test, the SAT, provide a compelling look at how the average student has performed academically during the years in which mobile phones have steadily become popular among teenagers.

Since 2004, the Pew Research Center has gathered data on teenagers’ ownership of cell phones, charting their meteoric rise to near-ubiquity. In 2004, 45% of teens aged 12 to 17 had a cell phone. In 2006, a full 63% had a cell phone. By 2008, 71% had a cell phone. In 2010, Pew reported that 75% of teens had a cell phone, and by then researchers characterized the devices as “indispensable tools in teen communication patterns.” In 2012, Pew reported that 77% of teens owned a cell phone, and in 2013, the figure rose only slightly, with Pew reporting that 78% of teens owned a cell phone (and almost half of those had smartphones, meaning that 37% of all teens have smartphones, up from just 23% in 2011).

In the same period, the College Board’s reports on the millions of students who take the SAT in preparation for applying to and attending college reveals that the mean scores have declined — on some sections more than others, but the results are still sobering if you were expecting scores to shoot up as the Internet and connected devices made exponentially more information available to students and teachers. From 2004 to 2013, the mean score (measured on a scale of 200 to 800) on each of the three sections of the SAT — Critical Reading, Mathematics, and Writing — declined.

Mean SAT scores vs. teen phone ownership

Source: Jess Bolluyt for Tech Cheat Sheet

Reading but not understanding

This isn’t to say that the increasing ubiquity of mobile phones among teens is making college-bound students dumber. Or, not exactly. After all, SAT scores are a poor proxy for a more qualitative measure of students’ intelligence, or “college readiness,” as the College Board prefers to call it. And there is a practically endless list of factors that likely have more influence on students’ SAT scores than whether they own a phone. But it should give us pause that the average critical reading score fell a steep 12 percentage points between 2004 (the year that 45% of teens had a phone) and 2013 (the year that 78% owned a phone). The average as of 2013 stood lower than it had been at any point in the past 40 years, and represents a loss of a significant 34 percentage points from a high 530 in 1972. That suggests that something, if not a growing dependence on technology, is affecting students’ ability to read and understand English at the level needed for undergraduate coursework.

Also between 2004 and 2013, the mean mathematics score fell (an albeit less-shocking) four points, from 518 to 514. Unlike the average critical reading scores, math scores have trended upward in the past 40 years, rising from a low of 492 in 1980 and 1981 to a high of 520 in 2005, and then dipping again to 2013’s 514. This trend, at least, is reassuring in an era where coding is considered the must-have skill for tomorrow’s professionals, i.e., today’s students. But it doesn’t make up for the fact that the average math score has decreased, not increased, in the past 10 years.

It’s important to acknowledge that the socioeconomic status of a teen’s family has been clearly shown to influence both his or her SAT scores and phone ownership. And that’s just one of the many hidden variables that could be influencing the manner in which the decline of SAT scores and the rise of teen phone ownership seem to coincide. The SAT is often criticized as a better indicator of socioeconomic status than of students’ readiness for college. And even in 2009, Pew reported a notable difference in phone ownership rates by socioeconomic status, with 62% of teens in households making less than $30,000 annually owning a phone, compared to 79% in households making more than $75,000.

Shortcut to stupidity

The New York Times reported in 2012 that while teachers have observed that access to the Internet and other technologies has improved students’ research skills, many have argued that technology has a detrimental effect on students’ attention spans — which hinders not just their ability to pay attention in class, but hurts their ability to write, to communicate face-to-face, to think critically, and even to complete their homework. A Pew survey of teachers found that many think that the Internet conditions students to find quick answers, and thanks to Google, they are more likely to give up when an easy answer proves elusive. Students’ ability to focus and fight through academic challenges seems to be on the decline, especially among those with unrestricted access to phones, television, games, iPads, and entertainment media at home.

In October, Salon’s Ian Leslie pointed out that while Google is known as a search engine, there’s barely any searching involved anymore, and our ability to ask questions and seek out answers is atrophying. Google’s head of search, Amit Singhal, when asked if people are getting better at articulating their search queries, sighed and told Leslie, “The more accurate the machine gets, the lazier the questions become.” Google makes a good question unnecessary, and Singhal’s team focuses on eliminating “every possible friction point between [users], their thoughts and the information they want to find.” But Leslie says that the gap between a question and an answer is where curiosity lives; the feeling of not knowing something inspires us to learn.

Leslie characterizes the process of outsourcing our memory to Google as “a short-cut to stupidity.” The less we know, the worse we are at processing new information and the harder we find it to formulate a pertinent inquiry to find out what we don’t know. He says that it’s not the Internet that makes us stupid, but the way that we use it. Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired, famously defined the division of labor between humans and technology, pointing to the necessity of cultivating the practice of asking perceptive and curious questions. “Machines are for answers; humans are for questions.”

Information, please

But not all Americans feel the same as Leslie or Kelly about their always-on access to the world’s information. In December, Pew released a study that found that most Americans feel better informed thanks to the Internet, with 87% reporting that the Internet and cell phones have improved their ability to learn new things. Additionally, 72% of Internet users report that they like having so much information at their disposal, while just 26% say that they feel overloaded.

Internet users also believe that both the average American and the average student are better informed thanks to digital technology. Seventy-six percent of online adults say that access to the Internet has made the average American more informed, while just 8% think that it’s made the average American less well-informed. Similarly, 77% of respondents say that the Internet has made today’s students better informed, with only 8% saying that it’s made them less well-informed.

Pew reports that surprisingly, Internet users under the age of 30 are less likely to believe that the Internet makes the average American or the average student better informed. Instead, these respondents are more likely than their older counterparts to say that the Internet has no real impact, a sentiment expressed by 19% of young adults and just 9% of those ages 30 and older. Their inclination to acknowledge no effect of the Internet is perhaps a reflection of the fact that young adults, too, came of age in the era of cell phones and Google, and are thus as much a part of the generation raised on technology as those who graduated from high school in recent years.

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