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In a review of two dozen studies about the impact of different media technologies on our cognitive abilities, reported in Science in 2009, developmental psychologist Patricia Greenfield noted that the rapid shift of focus in multitasking did improve facility at some tasks requiring the ability to keep track of lots of simultaneous signals—like air-traffic control and, presumably, military firefights. Unfortunately, multitasking weakened "higher-order cognitive processes"—little things like "abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem-solving, critical thinking, and imagination." All that stuff just takes so much time.
Adding digital insult to cyber-injury, multitaskers even seem to get worse at multitasking. Heavy-duty multitaskers are "suckers for irrelevancy, Everything distracts them," says Clifford Nass,
Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, argues that we're in danger of succumbing to terminal distractibility, unable to engage in any mental task that requires control, discipline, and extended focus (like actually reading a book). Several professors at the University of Michigan, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and who knows where else are so tired of trying to lecture to students who are texting, Googling, e-mailing, Facebooking, tweeting, ordering stuff online, and passing laptops back and forth (so others in class can take a look at their screens) that they've banned Internet use in class or even switched off wireless networks during class time.
If we're literally losing our minds to the Internet, we might be losing our hearts and souls, as well. Earlier this past spring, a South Korean couple was arrested for letting their 3-month-old baby starve to death while they spent 12 hours every night at the country's ubiquitous Internet games cafes (30,000 in the country, one on almost every street corner.) They were apparently obsessed with raising a "virtual daughter" via an interactive role-playing game. That same month, a 20-year-old Korean man was sentenced to 20 years in prison for clubbing his mother to death when she complained about his Internet habit. And about a year ago, another young guy killed his mother because she was so addicted to the web that, he thought, she wasn't being a good mom. It's worth noting that Korea has the fastest and most developed Internet system in the world—90 percent of homes are fitted with high-speed connections, half the population regularly plays computer games, and 1 in 10 online users is addicted, according to the government.
It's well known that the anonymity of the Internet "disinhibits" the kind of behavior that might shame people if others knew they were doing it. In the communal free-for-all that comprises the online reader responses to media articles, for example, some people seem to luxuriate in uncontrolled, mouth-foaming viciousness—as if having waited all their lives for this opportunity to just let loose and spew venom. The occasion hardly seems to matter; many a mild-mannered, perfectly unobjectionable little journalistic endeavor (an article about, oh, the federal deficit) has provoked the verbal equivalent of a dirty bomb. Maybe off the Net, these virtual cyber-terrorists are mild-mannered Clark Kents, never uttering a rude peep. Or maybe, they're less dangerous (we hope) equivalents of serial murderers. Actually, maybe the fact that they have a place to vent online prevents them from becoming mass murderers.
In any case, science writer Kathleen Taylor, author of Cruelty: Human Evil and the Human Brain, when asked by a New York Times writer why the Internet was such a cruel playground, theorized that humans had evolved to be "face-to-face creatures," getting "constant feedback from others, telling us if it was OK to be saying what we're saying. On the Internet, you get nothing, no body language, no gesture. So you get this feeling of unlimited power because there is nothing stopping you, no instant feedback." And there is something exhilarating about flaming somebody. Who's going to know it's you? It's like the perfect crime, except it isn't even a crime to explode at someone online.
More insidious is the impact of the electronic culture on the way kids grow up. According to a poster session presented at last summer's Association for Psychological Science, American college students today are 40 percent less empathetic—less able to take the perspective or imagine the perspective of others, sympathize with others' misfortunes, or identify with fictional characters—than 30 years ago, with the biggest drop occurring since 2000. The exact causes aren't known, but the paper's authors noted that the perceived excess of narcissism, competitiveness, and unjustified self-confidence in young adults may stem in part from the vastly increased exposure to Internet media. Violent media—first-person shooter games, for example—numb people to the pain of others, while the explosion in social media encourages casual, shallow, relatively meaningless relationships with online "friends." Hypercompetition and inflated expectations of success may be nurtured, the authors suggest, by ubiquitous reality shows for which tireless ambition and ruthless self-promotion are at least as important as genuine talent or ability.