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Internet Age: Are We Losing Our Ability to Read and Think?

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Internet Age: Are We Losing Our Ability to Read and Think?

Popular newspapers report declining circulations, with readers turning to the Internet. How is this impacting society?

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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Times are rapidly changing in the 21st century. Like never before in history, the entire world is connected. The global village has become the global home.

Billions now have cellphones, which have brought the ability to talk and send text messages around the world. Even in less developed countries, this technology is widespread. These hand-held devices have advanced into the next generation: smart phones (in other words, phones that act like small computers). “Intuitive function,” flexibility and sleek design are the leading factors in these devices.

Then there is the personal computer. A luxury item just a few decades ago, it is now a staple in almost every home of the Western world. People of all ages are learning how a computer works, and how it benefits them. Children, as young as a few years of age, find navigating a computer as natural as exploring a playground. Almost every office employee cannot function without one, with spreadsheets, word processors, emails, and so much more at their disposal.

With these and other developing technologies, the Information Age has truly “come of age.”

Newspapers Declining

In December 2008, the Pew Research Center reported that the Internet surpassed newspapers as the source for national and international news among Americans. The report, “Internet Overtakes Newspapers as News Source,” states, “Currently, 40% say they get most of their news about national and international issues from the Internet, up from just 24% in September 2007. For the first time in a Pew survey, more people say they rely mostly on the Internet for news than cite newspapers (35%).”

Dramatic increases for just one year!

The 2008 statistics are even more telling for young adults, ages 18 to 29: “For young people, however, the Internet now rivals television as a main source of national and international news. Nearly six-in-ten Americans younger than 30 (59%) say they get most of their national and international news online; an identical percentage cites television. In September 2007, twice as many young people said they relied mostly on television for news than mentioned the Internet (68% vs. 34%)” (ibid.).

Hardcopy newspapers and news magazines are becoming less popular. This can also be seen by looking at the significant and sometimes dramatic changes certain news companies have made over the past couple of years. Circulations of almost every newspaper across the country are declining.

In 2008, two longtime, well-known publications, The Christian Science Monitor and U.S. News & World Report, decided to abandon print and make their publications online only. This would have been unheard of just a decade ago.

In April of that year, Forbes magazine reported that, among 530 U.S. newspapers, circulation fell by 3.57% over 2007. The New York Times, one of the largest papers in the country, experienced a significant slide. Some of the other big decreases were The Boston Globe, The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., The Star Tribune of Minneapolis and The Detroit Free Press.

Months later, the trend continued, according to Agence France-Presse: “Circulation dropped sharply at most major US newspapers in the six months ending in September, continuing a slide which has led to cutbacks in newsrooms across the United States, according to figures released Monday.

“The Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), citing preliminary figures subject to audit, said circulation for 507 daily newspapers fell 4.64 percent in the period to 38.16 million copies from 40.02 million in the same period last year” (“US newspaper circulation drops again”).

In December 2008, the Associated Press reported on a large American city and its news industry: “Newspapers are desperately seeking new business models that will help them survive dwindling readership and a deep advertising slump exacerbated by the recession.

“The latest are The Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News, which said Monday they will announce ‘a sweeping set of strategic and innovative changes’ on Tuesday.

“The Detroit Media Partnership, which runs the business operations of the papers, said the changes are ‘designed to better meet advertiser and reader needs in an era in which digital delivery is revolutionizing how people get information.’”

Digital delivery is truly revolutionizing how we get our information.

For the foreseeable future, there will always be a certain demographic that will desire a print newspaper or magazine. But the question of newspaper survival would not have been considered years ago.

Today, it is safe to say that some will not survive.

21st-Century Source

In this “revolution” of information delivery, what is happening? In short, the reader is turning to the Internet, which itself is becoming more accessible. The availability of high-speed Internet access is a priority for many Western governments. Several countries already have high penetration rates. Many cellphones now provide access to the Internet, such as receiving a breaking news story.

Since 2000, the size of the Internet has more than tripled—and the trend shows no signs of slowing. As of January 2008, it hosted nearly 1.4 billion users, most from Western nations. At the time of this writing, there are an estimated 100 million more Internet users.

Most assume that “surfing the web” is something done only by younger generations, but the average age is actually increasing.

Notice some excerpts from an article in the Daily Mail, titled “Silver surfers beat the young as Web wizards”: “Pensioners surfing the Internet are spending more time online than their younger counterparts.

“So-called ‘silver surfers’ dedicate an average of 42 hours a month to the World Wide Web, compared with 37.9 hours among 18- to 24-year-olds.

“A greater interest in hobbies, news and local issues among the elderly is believed to be driving the trend, which sees over-65s account for nine per cent of all time spent online in the UK.”

“And the trend is likely to continue for decades to come, with over-50s now accounting for a quarter of all UK Internet users.”

These are stunning statistics! Many who are middle-aged have either learned computer skills on their own or been forced to learn because of job demands.

Profiles of Internet Users

What is the behavior of the average Internet user? When one goes online, what is his experience?

First, let’s discuss the concept of “surfing the web.” The computer user opens the browser (the software that accesses the world wide web). Within seconds, the homepage loads and something grabs the user’s attention. He clicks. He begins to read a story or view a video on the page.

Then, 30 seconds later, he remembers he wanted to search for something. He takes his mouse, clicks on the search bar, and types in a couple of words. The search engine returns—in 0.17 seconds—with answers. The individual quickly finds the link he is looking for. He clicks. Then he realizes it is a PDF (a universal file format that preserves the fonts, images, graphics and layout of any source document, regardless of the application and platform used to create it) and does not want to wait. So he hits the back button.

Slightly frustrated, the user opens an additional tab and loads a music station. Now two websites compete for his attention: He opens a third tab to read the daily news while listening to music (second tab) and doing research (first tab). After visiting scores of websites, the session ends.

Does this sound familiar?

Statistics reveal that people bounce from website to website, clicking from one link to another, quickly becoming distracted by other links. Few web users are willing to give their undivided attention to a website or article for more than a couple of minutes.

Take, for example, the second part of a news article, which would include another click of the mouse. The 21st-century user would say, “If you can’t get me the information I need within the first couple of clicks, I’m leaving. This is not worth my time.”

The company eMarketer, which monitors Internet behavior and statistics, published the following in its report “What’s Competing for Internet Users’ Attention? The answer: A lot”: “Getting consumers’ undivided attention gets harder all the time. Much like drivers who listen to music, talk on the phone, apply makeup and eat at the same time, Internet users in the US conduct a wide array of activities while online.

“Nearly six out of 10 respondents to a GfK Roper survey fielded in September and October 2008 said they listened to music or talked on the phone while using the Internet.”

Where will this multitasking behavior lead?

It is not just the Internet itself causing this shift in our behavior. It is modern technology—computers, phones, software, etc.

Take for example the structure of a computer and its software. They are designed to do several things at the same time. Email, documents, spreadsheets, digital photo albums and music players are all open at once. As soon as a person’s attention wanes, even for the briefest second, half a dozen other programs clamor for his attention.

In the name of efficiency, human beings are losing their ability to set aside hours to simply read without distraction.

Then there is spelling and grammar. Word processors immediately fix misspelled words or grammatical errors. Search engines are programmed to anticipate what you are attempting to spell and then offer you the correct spelling.

Basic activities of human behavior that were cherished decades ago seem to be slipping from our grasp in this modern age.

Imagine that you are a farmer, living 100 years ago. Sitting behind a team of horses, you plow fields—you have time to think! You are not distracted by televisions, portable radios, computers or cellphones. No one had yet heard of these devices. Until the last century, no one ever spent one minute in front of a television, computer or stereo. Teenagers did not constantly talk to each other on cellphones, with nothing constructive or important to say.

In the past, people read and thought much more. Try reading what are called “period letters”—letters written 150 years ago or longer. Also read letters exchanged during the American Civil War between President Abraham Lincoln and his generals. These were highly educated men, whose use of English grammar vastly exceeded today’s standards. People had time to mentally digest—to think and analyze.

No longer!

The Impact

Nicholas Carr wrote an article in The Atlantic magazine that perhaps best summarizes what the Internet is doing to its users: “Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

“I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets’ reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link.”

“For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind…And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski” (emphasis ours).

The last sentence is possibly the best analogy to explain how people read online. Mr. Carr goes on to explain that “the result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.”

He also quotes playwright Richard Foreman, who said, “We are the pancake people…spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information access by the mere touch of a button.”

No Time to Think

Here is another illustration that shows there is an incessant demand for our attention. Today’s sports experience is all about entertainment and keeping the audience’s attention.

At a typical NBA basketball game, for instance, bands of video screens circle the arena, with constantly changing images and bright flashes of white or yellow transforming the color of the stands. A four-directional mega-screen hangs above the court showing onlookers close-ups and replays of basketball moves. Following almost every play are mindless video clips that provide “commentary,” much to the delight of fans. During time outs, administrators rush to create even more entertainment. Hip-hop dancers take to the floor and gyrate to the latest hits, and cheerleaders dance as suggestively as possible, and in what is promoted as a “family atmosphere.” At other times, the master of ceremonies incites the audience to scream louder and louder.

And on it goes. So different from a sporting experience of 100 years ago. This is just one example of the tremendous demands for our attention.

Take Time to Read and Think

In the end, it should not be a surprise that so many cannot make it through three or four paragraphs before turning their attention to something else. What will be the long-term effects of such social behavior? What will happen to the children and teenagers of today who have even fewer occasions to read and think? Will a large enough foundation be built for our children to make correct decisions? What about your future?

Set aside time to think and read. You will be investing in your future. Ask yourself: When is the last time you have sat down for an hour or two and read the Bible, the most important book of all time? Do you find it hard to concentrate? When is the last time you turned off all electronics and simply thought of your goals and plans in life?

Take the time now to read our articles “Meditation – The Misunderstood Tool” and “The Rules of Effective Bible Study.”

Read. Think. You will be glad you did.

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