The Internet Impacting Our Concentration: Fact or Fiction?

After reading up to chapter seven in Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows”, I am intrigued by and have begun to ponder several of his arguments regarding how the internet is changing the way that we think. In general, Carr claims that throughout oral and written history, the human brain has changed in accordance with the dominant means of communication in a given time period. Most importantly, our brains are doing the same thing now as we begin to make the internet our primary medium for reading and communicating. However, when it comes to the internet, Carr doesn’t think that the brain’s inclination towards plasticity has had a positive impact on us. Instead, he feels that the brain’s acclimation to the digital age has had a detrimental effect on our attention spans. From the outset of the book, he makes this point clear, stating “And what the net is doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation” (Carr 6). Moreover, Carr feels that this same phenomenon has affected others in his generation as well as those who have grown up with the internet. Referring to the latter age cohort, Joe O’Shea, cited in the book, states “They don’t necessarily read a page from left to right and top to bottom. They might instead skip around, scanning for pertinent information of interest” (Carr 9).

I was specifically struck by the claim that many people my age read differently, and in a sense, incompletely. This is not something I had ever thought about or dwelled on until reading “The Shallows”. As someone who is forced to utilize both printed and online resources for school, it is important that I am able to absorb and retain information regardless of where it’s located. On the one hand, I understand where Carr is coming from because when I am reading news articles online, I occasionally tend to skip around the article to get to the main point that the headline was referring to. However, I usually do this skimming or skipping intentionally. Furthermore, when it comes to articles or important reading material for school, whether it is printed on paper or online, I take great care to read closely and make sure I am receptive to the information presented to me. I will say, though, there are times where I have trouble concentrating on what I read in a textbook for class, regardless of attempting to do a close read. I usually attribute this lack of concentration to the material, however, and not to any cognitive inability.

This topic has sparked much debate in the psychology and education fields. In this article from The Guardian, author Duncan Jeffries also uses Carr’s argument to investigate how others feel regarding the web and its impacts on concentration. I was surprised to read that a Pew Research survey found that while 77% of teachers feel that the internet has positive effects on students’ overall research, 87% of those same teachers feel that the internet is leading to shortened attention spans. In this sense, there is mixed opinion as to whether the internet has a positive or negative influence on our brains.