Dumb on Smart: Is Social Media Making us Stupid?


By Dr. Dhanpaul Narine

The revolution is digitized. Are we a nation that has become dumb on smart gadgets? Are we face-bookers that sit for hours staring at a screen where facetime, inbox, outbox, dropbox, and miles of sockets and dockets, have immersed us in a new vocabulary? There are those that believe we’re hooked up, addicted and uneducated, and standing in corners glued to smart screens, as we invite internet apnea. Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist at New York University. He uses the story of Babel in ‘The Atlantic’ to argue that we live in a fractured society, and says that Babel is a fragmentation of America.

According to Haidt, ‘something went terribly wrong, very suddenly. We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past.’ Social media has created dislocation in which we have lost ‘social capital, with high levels of trust, strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three,’ argues Haidt.

There can be no doubt that social media has resulted in disorientation and a reluctance to explore the treasure-trove of literacy. But is this ‘very suddenly’ as Haidt says? The signs of anti-intellectualism have long manifested themselves in American education. In 1963, Professor Richard Hofstadter provided the theoretical basis for anti-intellectualism. He argued that, ‘the strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.’

In 1982, Daniel Moynihan bemoaned the fact that video tapes were knocking books off the shelves, and a year later, a publication sent shockwaves across America. The document, ‘A Nation at Risk’ was published under the Reagan Administration. It found that the students were not equipped to meet the demands of science and technology. According to the Report, ‘a total of 13 per cent of all 17 years-old in the US were functionally illiterate.

Functional illiteracy among minority youths may run as high as 40 per cent.’ What was damning about these revelations was that many students did not possess higher order thinking skills, and more than 40 per cent, ‘could not draw inferences from written material; only one-fifth could write a persuasive essay from written material; and only one third could solve a mathematical problem requiring several steps.’

The National Endowment for the Arts reported in 1982 that the number of adults that read for pleasure was 82 per cent, but by 2002 this figure had dropped to 67 per cent. The proportion of 17 years-old read that nothing, unless required by school, doubled between 1984 and 2004. There are other disturbing revelations. In 2009, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs found that among public school students, 77 per cent of them did not know that George Washington was the first President of the United States, nor could they name the author of the Declaration of Independence. Many students did not fare better with the citizenship tests, as only 2.8 per cent of 8th graders were able to pass it.

It is little wonder that a number of educators feel that the educational skills of the previous generation will not be surpassed by current performance in schools. Many educators feel that students in today’s educational institutions will not surpass, equal, or even approach those of their parents. When asked to name a country that begins with the letter ‘U’ some seventh-graders replied, ‘Europe, Utah or Utopia.’ The currency of the England was given as the ‘pesos, the dollar, I don’t know, or the Queen’s money.’ The name of America’s neighbor, south of the border, was given as, ‘Disney World, Texas or Montana.’

The point from these examples is that the seeds of dumbing-down were sown in the seventies. They slowly worked their way into the classrooms through government’s control of the school system, and the lack of choice that brings competition. In 2006, it was reported that American students were behind other countries in the basic subjects. For example, America was placed 18th in reading, 22nd in science, and 28th in math, behind countries such as Poland, Australia, and South Korea.

In the 2009 Journal of Science, it was found that Chinese students outperformed their American counterparts in science, based on test scores in four American universities, and three Chinese universities. The Americans averaged 50 percent, while the Chinese scored 90 per cent. What has been the role of the internet on college students? Information shapes one’s thought process, but as Nicholas Carr argues, ‘the Net seems to be chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.’ The surfeit of information, at a click, is not without its drawbacks. We browse and skip rather than bury our minds into the beauty of the prose. We hop and skim, and read abstracts, rather than decipher the essence of the long passages.

The malleable mind wanders and cognitive development becomes obscure. Enter Sergey Brin, from Google, who wants our brains to be replaced by artificial intelligence, which is a scary thought.

As far as college students are concerned, a report in Applied Cognitive Psychology found that they spent five hours a day on their smart phones that has created a cascade of substandard performances. The conclusion was that more phone use led to poorer solving problem skills. Where do we go from here? Social media has given a voice to many, the minorities that clamor for change, and who have been able to organize, to effect revolutions. The Arab Spring is one such example. The search engines have presented a world library, at the fingertips, and have given us information to transform societies.

But social media is uncontrolled and unregulated. It has lumped people into categories, of right and left, conservative and liberals, and centrists; progressives and patriots, racists and traitors. Social media has also allowed a few to drive and dictate the agenda, and almost everyone to be an authority, and a critic. A child is cyber-bullied every fifteen minutes and little is done to stop it. There are those that predict social media will get worse, as viral piles on viral, the planet of the apps increases, and people don’t know what to believe anymore. Institutions, known for their credibility, are damaged. The leak in the US Supreme Court, Roe v Wade, has added to the confusion.

Haidt argues that the answer lies in the creation of voluntary associations to ‘fix local problems.’ But this is not enough. Power lies in education. It lies in the schools, and colleges, where sound curriculums can accommodate the digital embrace, to reflect and enhance learning. As the social media engines grind away, the simple stories continue to hold the truth.