Technology

How Digital Technology Has Changed the Brain


By their 20s, young people will have spent more than 30,000 hours on the Internet and playing video games. That's not such a bad thing

Editor's note: This is the second in an eight-part series (BusinessWeek.com, 11/3/08) of Viewpoints by author Don Tapscott, who draws on the $4 million research project that inspired his new book, Grown Up Digital, to explain how digital technology has affected the children of the baby boomers, a group he calls the Net Generation.

Last spring, I met with the management and academic leadership of Florida State University to talk about the future of higher education. I was there to share my views on pedagogy and how it needed to change now that the interactive, user-generated Web has altered the way an entire generation learns and thinks.

One of the deans turned to Joe O'Shea, the 22-year-old student body president attending the meeting, for his thoughts. O'Shea indicated that my views resonated with him, adding an unexpected kicker: "I don't read books," he said. "I go to Google, and I can absorb relevant information quickly." O'Shea explained that he can use Google (GOOG) Book Search to grab the information he needs. "But sitting down and going through a book from cover to cover doesn't make sense," he said. "It's not a good use of my time, as I can get all the information I need faster through the Web. You need to know how to do it—to be a skilled hunter."

O'Shea, it turns out, has used his hunting abilities to make a real difference. He set up a medical clinic in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and co-founded an international student exchange system along the lines of the Peace Corps. His style of Google learning may shock the academics at Florida State, but it hasn't slowed down his academic career. This year, O'Shea is at Oxford, studying philosophy on a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.

Effects of Digital Immersion

O'Shea is a shining example of a generation that thinks and learns differently from its forebears. The differences stem from their immersion in digital technology. By the time they're in their 20s, the Net Generation, as I call them, will have spent more than 30,000 hours on the Internet and playing video games. This is happening at a time when their brains are particularly sensitive to outside influences, and it has changed their mental reflexes and habits, the way they learn and absorb information.

Many critics think all this exposure makes young people dumb. One criticism, for instance, is that young people are reading far fewer books of literature than they once did. I think the decline in reading novels is a shame, but it does not make them stupid. As O'Shea's example shows, the digital world provides new ways to learn that can potentially make this Net Generation the smartest ever.

Scientists are beginning to document the traces that the Internet leaves on sensitive young brains. People who play a lot of action video games, for instance, process visual information more quickly than people who don't, according to a seminal 2003 article in Nature. (The study was initiated by a pre-med student who stayed up all night playing Counter-Strike.)

Digital immersion affects the Net Generation in other ways, too. They don't necessarily read from left to right, or from beginning to end. They're more sensitive to visual icons than older people are, and they absorb more information when it's presented with visual images than when it's offered in straight text. This may help them be better scanners, a useful skill when you're confronted with masses of online information.

Many experts contend that if young people try to absorb multiple streams of information at the same time, they'll make mistakes, slow down, and think less deeply and creatively. My observation of hundreds of Net Geners leads me to a different conclusion: Net Geners are faster than I am at switching tasks and better at blocking out background noise. They can work effectively with music playing and news coming in from Facebook. They can keep up their social networks while they concentrate on work—they seem to need this to feel comfortable. I think they've learned to live in a world where they're bombarded with information, so that they can block out the TV or other distractions while they focus on the task at hand. This is a powerful advantage in a digital environment that's buzzing with multiple streams of information.

New Form of Literacy

The digital world that Net Geners have been weaned on is profoundly interactive. Kids have grown up to expect a two-way conversation, not a one-way lecture. This interactive reflex has a profound effect on what one academic has called their "habits of mind." Instead of simply absorbing information—from a teacher or even a book—they go out and find it. As O'Shea's story illustrates, the Net Geners use Google when they want to find out something. When they do so, they construct their own story, their own idea, rather than following the line of thought drawn by someone else in a book. This obviously doesn't replace conventional book reading, nor should it. But what we're seeing is a new form of literacy that many experts say is just as intellectually challenging as reading a book.

Now some critics say that because Net Geners don't read books cover to cover, they don't get a chance to follow a fully developed argument. The result, according to these critics, is that they never learn to build a frame of reference that the intelligent reader needs to interpret the world. My own view is different: In the online hunt you can develop your own frame of reference, which is based on far more information than we ever had at their age. I think this makes the Net Generation smarter than they would have been had they just spent the time sitting on a couch watching TV.

Google, far from being an anesthetic that dulls young brains, can activate them and help them achieve spectacular results. Here's just one telling sign: The number of students taking Advanced Placement exams increased by 75% between 1999 and 2005, and their scores on those exams have been improving, too.

So maybe we shouldn't be so shocked when we hear a bright student such as Joe O'Shea say he doesn't read books. Googling—or using other digital probes to obtain information that you evaluate and analyze—can be a powerful way to learn and sharpen your mind. Perhaps Google can make you smart after all.


Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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