Are cell phones making kids stupid? In a word, “Yes” — that is, if you believe a recent study from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. It suggests that frequent use of mobile phones makes kids impatient, more impulsive and less effective at certain cognitive activities.
Originally, Monash’s Prof. Michael Abramson wanted to explore the effects of a cell phone’s electromagnetic fields on young bodies. So, as part of his research, the professor administered tests to 317 youngsters with an average age of 13.
Overall, he found that mobile phone use was associated with faster and less accurate responses to certain cognitive tasks. Working memory was more error prone, reaction time for simple learning tasks was shorter, and accuracy was poorer in children who used their phones a lot. But when it came to word-naming tasks, these children took longer to finish them.
The results were similar for both frequent texters and callers — though the former group actually takes in less radiofrequency radiation. So that blows a hole in the electromagnetic theory. Instead, the findings seem to correlate to learned behaviors, says Abramson. In other words, he’s saying kids learned to be this way because they use cell phones a lot.
“We don't think mobile phones are frying their brains," says Abramson, but "if you're used to operating in that environment and entering a couple of letters and getting the word you want, you expect everything to be like that.”
Is This The Dumbest Generation Ever?
Meanwhile, over at Pew Internet & American Life Project, surveys have revealed that teen ownership of cell phones has exploded, from less than half of U.S. teens in 2004 to 71 percent in 2008. (For more on that, read the whole post here.)
So what have we learned from all this? Mobile phones make kids dumb, and since more young people than ever are using them, we must be raising what will be the stupidest generation ever.
Wow, if you believe the experts, the future’s looking pretty bleak.
Personally, I’m not sold on this. And I’ve got quite a bone to pick with Professor Abramson.
The Dangers of Pseudo-Science (WARNING: RANT AHEAD)
Noting a concurrent set of factors is one thing; stating that there’s a causal relationship is another (i.e., “Group 1 comprises heavy cell phone users, and they showed cognitive difficulties” vs. “Group 1’s heavy cell phone use caused their cognitive difficulties”). There’s a huge difference between the two that I don't think Abramson is distinguishing here.
Did he look into diet and nutrition? Other technological factors, like average hours spent playing PSP or Wii? What about rock music? That last contention sure had some play back in the 50s, and this current argument seems to have about as much scientific basis. And what about the possibility that impatient kids with short attention spans might be more likely to use their phones more. That would make the heavy cell usage the result, not the cause, of cognitive difficulty.
What really flabbergasts me about this is his quote above. The study's results were also pegged to overall phone usage, regardless of whether it was voice- or text-based. But — and I’m not sure why — Abramson specifically zeroed in on texting in his comments. Based on what?
When I take a step back and take a deep breath, I can see why some people might be quick to jump on the cell-bashing bandwagon. Sure, it may be common sense that the ready availability and instant gratification of 24-7, always-on communication devices must have some sort of behavioral impact. But common sense is not the same thing as fact or empirical scientific data. So if I were an academic researcher, I’d be way more careful about making unsubstantiated assertions. Heaven knows there’s already enough out there to scare parents and school administrators silly. Offhand comments and pseudo-scientific research don’t really need to be added to the mix.
[via The Register]