Digital Media Changes How We Think… And How We Report Those Changes

Read on a tablet or a laptop?  If you do, it may well be changing how you perceive, understand and integrate what you are reading.  At least that is what a new study from Dartmouth College’s Tiltfactor Lab shows.

The study involved two groups reading the same article – one group on a digital platform and the other on good old paper.  Those reading digitally scored lowered on questions requiring inference and more abstract thinking.  So is digital media making us “dumber”?  Not so fast.  While inference and abstraction are clearly important, it turns out that those reading digitally also scored higher when answering concrete questions of fact.

As is so often the case, we learn once again that the “how” and the “what” are intimately connected, and the real issue is not what medium makes you smarter or dumber, but what you aim to accomplish when you are reading.  The “why” is more important that either the “how” or the “what”, as it so often is, especially when we have multiple options. 

When you know why you are reading, you will then be well-positioned to decide how to read.  Not surprisingly, each way of acquiring information and experience will have its costs and benefits, and the only think to fear is the often offered, and rarely true, claim that you can have it all.

But now that we have “solved” that issue, we can turn to the more powerful and potentially more debilitating impact of digital reporting – the need to grab attention with outsized claims, especially of the negative variety.  The article referenced above warns of the threat of our minds shrinking, of the loss of conceptual thought, and generally invites us to beware the potentially nefarious impact of digital media.  None of that is exactly what the study suggests, not to mention that those offering the warnings are doing it through digital media!  What is going on?

The bigger story here is not the negative impact of reading digitally.  The real story here is how the digital world – so often measured in clicks and eyeballs alone – incentivizes the overreaching, especially when it comes to shocking or scaring us.  I don’t know that we can do much about this (would I have payed attention without the “sky is falling” approach?  I honestly don’t know.), nor do I think that the challenge is unique to digital media.  The old adage about “if it bleeds, it leads” pre-dates the internet by 100 years.

I only know that there is usually more to any story that how it is told to us, or sold to us, and that with ever-increasing ability to receive more and more information, we need to make ever greater efforts to go beyond the headlines, and definitely be aware not only of what we are reading it, but why we are reading it.  And if all that is true for ideas, it is at least as true for people – who are, as a rule, at least as complex as any text we choose to read.

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