Could The Internet & Television Be Making Everyone Smarter?

from the i-thought-google-made-us-dumb dept

To hear the neoluddites talk, Google makes us stupid. And, of course, there’s a common belief out there that television and video games similarly are somehow “dulling” the brain. But, if that were the case, then we’d be seeing some pretty specific evidence of that by now. And that’s a problem. Because the actual data seems to be going in the other direction. Reason points us to Jonah Lehrer’s reporting on a new study that suggests the smartest kids have been getting smarter over the past few decades.

There had already been reports showing that the average IQ keeps creeping upwards, but many suggested this was because of efforts to bring the bottom half up. That is, over the past few decades we’ve generally improved the quality of education and especially focused on helping those who struggle, more than in the past. We’ve also increased educational opportunities for groups that got much less attention in the past. However, there hadn’t been much exploration of the top of the curve. Were the smartest getting smarter too? The latest research suggests the answer is absolutely:

The effect was found in the top 5% at a rate similar to the general distribution, providing evidence for the first time that the entire curve is likely increasing at a constant rate. The effect was also found for females as well as males, appears to still be continuing, is primarily concentrated on the mathematics subtests of the SAT, ACT, and EXPLORE, and operates similarly for both 5th and 6th as well as 7th graders in the right tail.

Of course, my own initial reaction to the studies about increasing IQ was to wonder if there might be a different factor: the test itself. It’s entirely possible that the standards of the test changed and/or people somehow were “teaching to the test.” That could still be true of this newest study, but for whatever it’s worth, the new study does not rely just on IQ tests, but a variety of different measures, which at least (hopefully) minimizes the impact of the test itself.

Either way, it certainly calls into question the claims of an Idiocracy world, driven by our interactions with modern technology. In fact one hypothesis put forth by researchers is that “the increasing complexity of entertaining” may actually be helping quite a bit here:

The question, of course, is what this stimulation might consist of? It obviously has to be extremely widespread, since the IQ gains exist at the population level. One frequently cited factor is the increasing complexity of entertainment, which might enhance abstract problem solving skills. (As Flynn himself noted, ?The very fact that children are better and better at IQ test problems logically entails that they have learned at least that kind of problem-solving skill better, and it must have been learned somewhere.?) This suggests that, because people are now forced to make sense of Lost or the Harry Potter series or World of Warcraft, they?re also better able to handle hard logic puzzles.

Of course at this stage, that’s nothing but a hypothesis, so I’m hesitant to give it too much credence yet.

If I had to take a wild, flying guess (and yes, I’m saying this is a total guess), I’d wonder if the increase is because we end up communicating much more with other people these days. Some of it is that we communicate textually, rather than verbally, much more often than in the past. So children spend a lot more time with the written word — even if lots of it is considered silly or banal. However, I believe that intelligence increases the most through the spread and sharing of ideas and conversation. The more you have ideas challenged the more you have to think through the logic of what you’re saying and try to improve your arguments and cognition around those ideas. And, just in general, I believe intelligence is mainly expanded through pattern matching and the intersection of new ideas. The more one communicates with others, the more likely you are to hit those sparks of ideas together, and generate that new knowledge and cognition.

I don’t know how one would go about studying that, but I’m sure it would make for some fascinating research.

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Comments on “Could The Internet & Television Be Making Everyone Smarter?”

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PRMan (profile) says:

Re: Re:

My kids watch Mythbusters, and while their science isn’t perfect, their methods are pretty good. So it caught me by surprise when my kids heard about a scientific “fact” portrayed by the media that was incredulous and immediately began attacking the method used to come up with the numbers and explaining why it was wrong.

They’re better scientists at 11 and 13 than I was at 14 or 15 just from watching a show they like!

darryl says:

Re: It is making us very lazy

Apps that do everything for you.

What app can I download that “thinks” for me ?

What app can I get that will allow me to write a book ? develop a story line, and put words and idea’s in ?

what app can I use to decide if I need to eat or not, or to breath.

“I have a pen, so I can perform any math calculation I like!!!”

“But you dont know math’s!”

“Yes, but I have a pen, it will do it for me, all I have to do is operate it”.

“The pen knows what it’s doing, therefore I do not”.

Jimr (profile) says:

We can find the answers now. When I was a kid and want to know something at the spur of the moment I would have to take some effort to find it. Now my kids come to me and say they saw a purple dragon fly in the yard and wonder why it was purple and not some other color. They ask to look up the issue on the internet. In less than 5 minutes we had all sorts of information and a clear answer for the kid. Then two weeks later she saw some black and red ants and inquired if their colors where determine in the same way as the dragon flies.

Like most kids they ask lots of questions and now we have the power to really given them a solid answer. Not like when I was a kid and my parent skirted the question and if remembered I would ask the teachers or go to the library and spend significant time looking up answer.

The power if the information age is now we can find the answer long before we forget the question.

Gary (profile) says:

The television and internet are just tools to be used how you wish. How you use them will determine what you get from them. Universities undoubtedly make people smarter but during my first year in one I didn’t use it for it’s designed purpose, I used it more to research certain chemicals (I studied Civil Engineering) getting drunk and chasing girls and I’m certain that first year I got dumber. Similarly if you only use television to watch Big Brother or watch Ricky Gervais play the same character in different settings, or only use the internet to watch porn you’ll probably get dumber. Tools can’t make you anything it’s all about how you use them!

darryl says:

Re: Re:

schools and universities do not make you ‘smarter’ they provide you with knowledge,and tech you a method to gain knowledge, knowledge is not intellegence.

You will get the same IQ scores before and after you go to Uni, you knowledge will have increased a great deal, but you are not smarter.

you might be able to spell ‘transistor’ but that does not mean you understand how one works.

if you do not have the necessary intelligence no amount of teaching will make you understand something your IQ will not allow you to understand.

PRMan (profile) says:

I think the difficulty in using modern tools is helping

Cell phones are modern computers and even computer usage is nearly 100%. No matter how difficult a computer is to use, people figure it out because they want to get on Facebook or Twitter or text their friends.

My daughters can fix computer problems that stump my wife with ease, and my wife is pretty computer-literate. But they are quick to figure stuff out to get what they want.

Jay (profile) says:

A thought...

“I don’t know how one would go about studying that, but I’m sure it would make for some fascinating research.”

Why not measure test scores of large cities in the US versus those of rural areas? It should show the exact correlation that you’re looking for. If there’s more people in a certain area, it can be argued that at the high school level, you should see a marked difference of the two areas to show your hypothesis.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Well, uh, texting like really teaches typing, and, uh, like you can communicate better while like driving and stuff.

Despite your statements, multiple studies (real actual research, rather than some anonymous person making a dickish claim online) show that, in fact, kids today are much better spellers and have a larger vocabulary than in the past. And, those studies have connected it to text messaging. While they may use txt spk in texting, it’s a myth that this means they don’t understand when to use proper language as well.

But, you ignore all that, because you “just know”? Very convincing.

darryl says:

Re: Re: Re:

kids today are much better spellers and have a larger vocabulary than in the past.

And Mike that has to do with IQ how ????

Oh, lets ignore all that, because you “just know”! Very convincing.

We all have a larger vocabulary today then in the past, as we have a far larger pool of words that make up the vocabulary.

(dumb it down for you)

People know more words because THERE ARE MORE WORDS TO KNOW !!!!

But, you (will) ignore all that, because you “just know”!.

well Im convinced!

please provide citation for said ‘studies’ ? the know the “real actual research” you talk about, but fail (for some KNOWN reason) to reference.

darryl says:

Re: Re: words alone are not enough !

you see for example, you know the word “patent” but you have NO IDEA what a patent is. Clearly from your comments and rants about patents, you have no idea of what one is or how its applied.

So just knowing words does not increase they IQ, you can know every word in existance, and if you lack the underlying understanding knowing the word is pointless.

For someone to say they are smart, but then to say that if someone details a METHOD of achieving a result, then that result CANNOT ever be achieved by applying another method.

That is why we are all still grinding wheen between two rocks, and catching out food with sticks and clubs.

Oh wait, just possibly, there might be MORE THAN ONE WAY to do something!!!! I bet now you are REALLY confused Mike!

So if I invent a METHOD of applying paint onto a surface by using a thing called a “brush” that has ‘hair’ on one end, then it is impossible for anyone else in the world to invent a method of applying paint with a thing called a ‘spray gun’ (not not a ray gun) that uses compressed air.

Or you could not develop a method of applying paint by electrostatically charging the paint droplets and having them electrically attracted to the target ?

So knowing the ‘words’ is not enough.. Mike you are a perfect example of that. You have to know the MEANING of the word that requires intelligence.

You know the word copyright, but you cannot understand that that words means “a right to copy”, so again you know the word, (good for you), but you fail in understanding.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Perhaps these researchers about whom you wax poetic would be well advised to spend some time in a high school classroom where english and grammar are being taught. While there are always exceptions, my observation from reading the work of my wife’s students is that subject matter understanding and mastery has been on the decline for a very long time.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Perhaps these researchers about whom you wax poetic would be well advised to spend some time in a high school classroom where english and grammar are being taught

They do. The studies done are of the work of high school students. And they prove your anecdotal evidence wrong.

I find it funny that you, who always pedantically pretends to be a stickler for details and precise accuracy and evidence throws it all out the window because of a few anecdotes.

darryl says:

Re: pedantic observation - convoluted but accurate

Great logic:

Scores have not gone up… Scores have increased over time…. scores are the same….. the score is 100.

At least we both understand what you are trying to say, and you are correct, but also incorrect.

Yes, IQ scores are a median (soft of), and you cannot gauage an increase of intelligence over time of a population with standard IQ tests.

because the way it works is that the IQ of 100 means a 10 year old is as smart as a ‘median’ 10 year old (today).

an IQ of 90 means a 10 year old TODAY has the IQ of a 9 year old TODAY.

IQ of 110 means a 10 year old has the brains of an 11 year old. (today).

unless you can find a 10 year old who was born 30 or 40 years ago, this entire article completly misses the point and idea behind IQ testing.

It cannot be used for historical analysis.

So if your entire population is as dumb as shit on a stick, then the average IQ will be 100.

aldestrawk says:

Re: Re: pedantic observation - convoluted but accurate

This is not convoluted at all. I will spell it out for you.

When an IQ test is first constructed, some representative sample of the population takes that test. The median score from that test is assigned an IQ value of 100. The distribution of scores from that test should have a normal distribution (bell curve) with a standard deviation of 15. If the actual distribution didn’t match this, the test would be changed so that the result would show this distribution. Revisions of any particular test are re-normalized to match this distribution and thus take into account the Flynn effect.
Any particular person’s IQ score is found by taking their score on that particular IQ test and calculating where that score would place them on the above distribution. The standard deviation of 15 means that 95% of all IQ scores fall within 70-130 (2 standard deviations from either side of 100)

Your comment assumes that IQ scores are a “ratio IQ” based on William Stern’s method. This was used for children and gives a kind of mental age. This type of test was replaced, starting about 1950, with a test that results in a score reflecting distribution (as described above) rather than mental age. This type of test wasn’t useful for adults who have always been given intelligence tests where the score represents a statistical distribution of intelligence rather than a ratio of mental age.

NikeHerc (profile) says:

"Pigs Fly!" Film at 11

In spite of being a big fan of Mike, I think he’s missed the boat on “Could The Internet & Television Be Making Everyone Smarter?”

IMHO, entertainment engenders brain rot. Constant entertainment (irrespective of the source) leads to complete brain rot.

From having taught part time in two colleges and from having interviewed a number of potential job applicants, I really see no evidence to conclude that people are smarter now than, say, twenty years ago; I would, alas, reach the opposite conclusion.

NikeHerc (profile) says:

Re: Re: "Pigs Fly!" Film at 11

Mike says, “So we should just your opinion, rather than the data?”

Mike, I think you meant to say, “So we should just [accept] your opinion, rather than the data?”

I have written no papers and have done no explicit research on whether the Internet and television are making everyone smarter, so how do I respond cogently and in fewer words than a dissertation? I can offer a number of personally observed data points and I can offer the wisdom of others. Allow me to present exhibit 1, part of FCC chairman Newton N. Minow’s famous 1961 “vast wasteland” speech (

“I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”

I often wonder what Mr. Minow thinks, fifty years hence, about his “vast wasteland” speech. The number of channels has increased from about three to hundreds, yet the intellectual content of all those channels continues to approach zero asymptotically. Even my all-time favorite program, Nova (PBS), seems to be struggling to find content. If Nova is struggling for content, it surely is not from a lack of suitable subjects!

I have been on the Internet since 1993. When I first began to read Usenet news, I was appalled to discover the level of vitriol in many of the postings, but I was even more dismayed at the level to which written English had fallen: lousy structure, syntax, spelling, the inability of many, many writers to distinguish between their/there, its/it’s, to/too, and the list goes on and on.

Eighteen years (nearly a generation) later, I see no noticeable improvement in written English among those Internet users who appear to be native English speakers. If some source or sources have made everyone smarter, where is the evidence?

I taught a college introductory programming class for a number of semesters. In two instances (different semesters), I saw a student try to take the sine of (say) 37 degrees Fahrenheit. Think about that for a moment. Sometimes I lie awake at night thinking about that twisted logic. Is the sine of 37 degrees Fahrenheit equal to the cosine of 37 degrees Celsius? Did these students learn their pre-college trigonometry from tv or from the Internet?

I have participated in interviewing many, many people for technical jobs. One young lady interested in a computer operator position tried to impress us with her experience in using [sic] “backup tape cartilages.” When I moved to a systems engineering position, I was frankly shocked to see the poor level of mastery of English among the people we interviewed for positions within our group. Did these people, some of whom were technically qualified, learn their English from tv or from the Internet?

When I was in high school, I discovered a particular magazine (perhaps you can guess its name from the following clues) in the school library. This magazine carried articles which I often couldn’t understand in spite of the excellent writing and illustrations. (No, it isn’t Playboy.) After obtaining two technical degrees in college, I subscribed to this magazine when I discovered I could now understand many of the articles. After enjoying this magazine for years, I was disturbed beyond words to discover in the mid-1990s that the publisher was dumbing down its content. No longer were articles written by holders of PhDs, they were written by journalists. No longer were the columns written by people you had heard of had you been paying attention in class. This was, sadly, my first personally observed data point on the dumbing down of America.

I’d be willing to bet that everyone reading this post can contribute his or her own data point on the dumbing down of America. If tv and the Internet have made everyone smarter, why is America being dumbed down so successfully?

Mike, I refute your one data point (“Could The Internet & Television Be Making Everyone Smarter?”) with nearly 30 years of personally observed data points that represent, sadly, the contrary position, and I enlist Mr. Minow in the defense of that position.

I apologize for the length of this posting and sincerely hope I have made my point. If you think I have missed the boat (and that is, of course, entirely possible), I would enjoy reading your rebuttal.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: "Pigs Fly!" Film at 11

It’s tough to respond to a post where you think your observations equal data, and my stack of actual research and aggregate data is a single data point.

The fact that you see dumb people say dumb things on the internet is meaningless. That is not how one measures intelligence. I trust the data, not some quote from someone 50 years ago.

The data and careful studies win. Your observations do not.

Andy (profile) says:


I have just come off REDDIT. I watched a few videos by Richard Feynman on physics and wow was i amazed , he explains how a train stays on the tracks , yes i know you think you know, but just do a youtube search of his name and prepare to be absolutely amazed. This is how we learn from the internet , someone points out something and all our preconceived ideas are blown away.
Because it is easy i had a look at his Wikipedia and found that he is the most intelligent man of our time, being involved in creating the first nuclear bomb amongst many other things.

You would not go amiss watching all of his videos on youtube.

when explaining something to someone we try to explain it simply so the other person will understand , whereas if we point out the obvious to people they can understand things more easily. For example the train staying on the track.

darryl says:

Re: Learning (that IQ and knowledge are different)

IQ and knowledge are two seperate entities.

you could be shown how a train stays on the tracks vid a million times, but if you do not have the IQ to UNDERSTAND the concepts you will not ‘get it’.

Every knows

E = MC2

but knowledge of that does not mean you understand special or general relativity.

knowing that things fall, does not mean you understand gravity.

Anonymous Coward says:

Anecdotal? First hand, personal review of hundreds of papers by students in 10th through 12th grade over 30+ years is “anecdotal”? Well, perhaps the work of students throughout California (Monterey Peninsula, Fremont, and San Diego Unified School Districts) and Florida (Orange County Public Schools) are not representative of the US as a whole.

Charter Spectrum (profile) says:

Uses Of Internet and Television in This Era

I guess it depends upon how habitual are you to use google for every single thing that. I use the Internet using services by Charter Internet and Television and I believe that internet and google are powerful tools to stay up dated rather than gaining intelligence. To make yourself smart there are quite a few ways that actually help you enhance your intellect and skills. A major practice can be reading books, etc.

Best regards:

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