The Digital Theft of Competencies

We are beginning to get lost in the myriad of information which reaches us. Addiction to the use of mobile phones has caused a decline in sensitivity to others. Successive generations are losing intellectual competence, social sensitivity and the need to work on their development with increasing intensity. It's time to do something about it. In many countries, the first attempts have already been made.

Further research results show that the overuse of digital tools reduces the chances of developing literacy, numeracy and learning skills in general. What’s more, researchers of human intelligence have noted a halt or even a regression of the so-far observed steady increase in the level of intelligence of successive generations. There are many indications that the observed phenomena are a consequence of the ubiquity of digital media and the dependence of a significant part of humanity on them.

Digital Dementia

When Manfred Spitzer wrote his famous book entitled Digital Dementia, it seemed that he depicted all the damage that addiction to digital tools can bring us. Less than a decade later, it turned out that the author hadn’t essentially even touched the tip of the iceberg. In May 2012, Mechthild Dyckmans, the German government plenipotentiary for addictions, in her annual report wrote: “About 250,000 people between the ages of 14 and 24 are considered to be addicted to the internet, and 1.4 million internet users fall into this group at risk of addiction.”

A few years earlier, doctors in South Korea, the country with the best-developed information technology at the time, began to report more and more disturbances in memory, attention and concentration in teenagers, as well as emotional deficits and symptoms of general dementia. It was agreed that the mechanism for using social media is similar to gambling addiction. When we wait for rewards in the form of comments or likes, the brain releases more dopamine and we feel pleasure. Dependence on sources of digital satisfaction limits decision-making and agency to the possibilities set by the stimulant that dominates us. The consequence of overuse of digital tools causes a deterioration of mental efficiency, in particular short-term memory. Difficulties in coping with daily activities independently, including loss of cognitive abilities, are increasing.

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In 1994, James R. Flynn, a professor of psychology at the University of Otago in New Zealand, published studies showing that the intelligence quotient (IQ) of successive generations is constantly increasing. The described phenomenon has been referred to as the Flynn effect and has aroused the interest of users of tests measuring the level of intelligence of children and adolescents. Joe Rodgers of the University of Oklahoma pointed out that because intelligence increases systematically every year, a change of commonly used tests, such as the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC), is necessary. It would seem that the future of humanity goes together with much more skilled and intelligent minds, which will represent a much higher potential than previous generations of parents and grandparents.

Unfortunately, studies recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal show that something has changed. The Flynn effect has waned, and the IQ level has begun to drop by as many as seven percentage points per generation. Studies show a decrease in IQ even within one family, which causes the explanation for the accumulation of weaker genes to be rejected. What is more, the described effect is also confirmed by PISA studies. It turns out that the results of 15-year-olds from the USA, Great Britain, Germany, Poland, Russia, Greece, Japan, Singapore and South Korea from 2012 and 2015 confirm, in the vast majority (except Russia), a decline in math skills and literacy. Successive generations systematically lose the potential developed by the previous ones.

Dysfunctional Reality

Young people cannot imagine a life in which they cannot almost compulsively check the information they need, follow the traffic on social networks, and confirm the sense of their functioning with constant clicking, liking or sharing selected content. Izabela Franke, head of the consulting department of Future Mind – a Polish but world-class digital consulting company – emphasizes that young people do not know reality without smartphones. Future Mind conducted a study that showed that 1 in 10 young people (15–20 years old) would be able to function without a phone for at most an hour. However, 39% of them spend between 5 and 10 hours staring at their smartphone screen, while 9% spend more than 10 hours a day on such an activity. The key – as the authors of the report write – is that the phone accompanies young people around the clock.

chatGPT / Midjourney / Maciej Kochanowski

Researchers at Hokkaido University decided to study how mobile phones affect the ability to focus the attention of 40 college students. The participants were divided into two groups and were asked to search for specific phrases on the screen. The first group was given a phone in the vicinity of the computer, and the second – a notebook. Those who were assigned to the first group took much longer to find a given fragment on the monitor than the representatives of the group with a notebook. The participants of the study were distracted by the mere “presence” of the phone.  Interestingly, further research showed that people who did not use the internet very often daily were particularly vulnerable to lack of concentration. So it is not about the use of the network itself, but about the tools we use in relation to the digital world. The results turn out to be particularly important in the context of young people who become extremely easily addicted to mobile devices, treated not only as a source of information but as a kind of time filler.

The world in which our students live and function significantly influences what they are like and how they learn. Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, researched and proved that just five hours of web surfing can make you read faster. The problem is that we read far less carefully.

On the other hand, studies conducted between 2007 and 2008 by University College London showed that students who are well-versed in technological achievements are very poor at finding information and critically evaluating it. The constant use of electronic media strengthens their nervous connections related to the use of modern equipment but negatively affects direct interpersonal contacts.

Dysfunctional Relations

Opponents of using digital tools at school emphasize that it is one of the most frequently given reasons for the emergence of unfavorable social relationships. The key in this case is the so-called joint attention. This is a category known in psychology that confirms the importance of mindfulness to others. When we sit next to each other, each immersed in the screen, we do not learn to empathize, and similarly react to certain events. Manfred Spitzer describes a funny situation he noticed while trying to watch her favorite cartoon with his daughter. To make the fun even bigger, he connected the computer to the screen and two good speakers. After a while, he noticed that the girl was getting more and more annoyed that the sound was coming from a different place than the characters she was watching.

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Patricia Kuhl, a neurolinguist at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, has shown that children learn a language in direct contact with the speaker, rather than when they watch the same person on screen. In other words, a child first and foremost needs another human being to develop. Without the possibility to connect sounds with the person of mom or dad, infants find it harder to learn their parents’ language. Children no longer associate the sound source with the image. We get lost in a seemingly orderly world. Our youngest get lost. Someone steals their normality. The same happens with young people who spend too much time on the internet. They have difficulty with distinguishing emotions. They do not distinguish anger from disgust. They associate sadness with anger, and they interpret a neutral face as sad. They read neither prohibition nor encouragement. They move in the world of emotions like blind people.

Attempted Digital Blockade

In recent times, discussions have been held in many countries on the need to restrict the use of digital devices by children and young people. The American Academy of Pediatrics proposes that children under 2 years of age should not watch television or use any digital devices at all. Over the age of 3, it is allowed to watch short educational programs. However, children must be accompanied by adult carers. There should be someone next to them who can explain incomprehensible content.

In France, Italy, Greece, Portugal, and recently also in the Netherlands, it has been decided to ban the use of phones in schools. Dutch Minister of Education Robbert Dijkgraaf, having proposed to ban the use of mobile phones, tablets and smartwatches from January 2024, stressed that even if smartphones have grown into our lives, their place is not in the classroom. After all, students must be able to concentrate and they should be given the chance to learn well. The widespread presence of artificial intelligence and the consequences of addiction to digital tools require radical changes in teenagers’ lives. But are we, the adults, able to carry them out?

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Translation: Marcin Brański

Published by

Jarosław Kordziński


Trainer, coach, mediator, and moderator of development processes for people and organisations, mainly in the area of education. Over the years, a partner of key entities supporting the development of education: MEN (Ministry of Education and Science), CODN/ORE (Central Teacher Training Centre/Centre for Education Development), CEO (Centre for Citizenship Education), FRDL (Foundation for the Development of Local Democracy). A regular collaborator of „Dyrektor szkoły” (“The School Head Teacher”) magazine. The author of a dozen or so books devoted to education on management issues, professional development of teachers, but also the challenges that education is facing at the threshold of the 21st century.

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