Generation Y: The Internet’s Effects on Cognition and Education

Source: Stuart Miles /

It is difficult for young people today to imagine a time without text messaging and internet surfing. The current generation of college students in particular have literally grown up with the internet, and are often more technologically literate than their parents and professors. Studies have shown that young people’s frequent use of the internet affected their brain development,1 a finding that gives rise to the question of how education today is affected by students’ different ways of thinking and studying.  Furthermore, are the internet-minded students at an advantage or disadvantage regarding their education and their ability to retain what is taught? The answer appears to be two-sided: while too much use of the internet can lead to addiction and shorter attention spans, it has also been shown that being internet-minded gives people the potential to learn even more. Of course, for that to happen, it is necessary to have educational systems that embrace how young people think today, and cater to their particular needs.

Few would argue against the internet being a revolutionary force that has changed society significantly in the past few decades, but surprisingly little research has actually been done on how it is affecting our brains and the way people think.2 Researcher Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University is one of the few who has looked at the internet’s effect on cognition. She found that people were much less likely to remember particular facts if they believed that the information would be accessible to them in the future.3 When presented with random facts, participants in the study who believed the information would be lost after they read it scored much higher on the quizzes that asked them to recall the facts than those participants who thought they could access the information later. Interestingly, she also found that most people immediately turn to the internet when they are presented with a question to which they don’t know the answer.2 Furthermore, she noticed that people prioritize remembering where certain information can be found over the information itself.3 In an interview for Columbia University, Sparrow explained that the internet has become today’s primary source of transactive memory, or memory that uses external sources to store and to retrieve information.2 The idea of transactive memory is nothing new; how many times have we not bothered to memorize a certain recipe because we knew we could simply ask our mothers when we needed it? Today, it is the other way around- individuals first turn to the internet, then consult others, so the former reduces people’s need to remember details by always serving as a go-to source for our questions.2 One implication that Sparrow’s research has on students therefore is that they might not be as detail oriented in their studying. However, as Sparrow also notes, not being burdened with details but instead forming the bigger picture gives people the capacity to learn so much more, and has the potential to make humans smarter on the whole.

Other studies have enlightened us of the more negative effects of the internet on cognition and learning. Two recent articles by the NYT discuss how constant stimulation by email, text messages, and online video games create a profound obstacle to the focus and productivity of both young people and adults.1 Furthermore, young people are particularly disadvantaged by the technology because their growing minds are more susceptible to developing a short attention span in response to the stimuli. Even without the internet as a distraction, many young people struggle as is to manage time wisely and resist impulsive behavior. The concern is that the younger generations will be ‘wired’ differently than the older generations, and that they will be at a disadvantage. For example, the idea of “internet addiction” has been increasingly discussed in psychiatry as a growing issue.4 Constant stimulation, perceived as exciting, can trigger dopamine release in the brain, without which one might begin to feel bored. In this way, a person might come to seek distractions via the internet.5

With different studies highlighting both the positive and the negative ways that the internet affects cognition, the relevant question becomes whether the internet spells doom or success for today’s students. Some believe that it is not a question of internet use, but a question of teaching methods.6 It is clear that the students of today and their baby-boomer generation professors grew up in very different academic environments, disconnecting them. For example, the average college student today has grown up in an environment of constant stimulation, leading them to process information in a very different way than older graduates. Yet, the format of most college classes has changed very little in the past few decades. Lectures and long reading assignments, both still common, may be more challenging to today’s student because they are not as interactive and stimulating.6 However, many educational institutions are making an effort to make the format of homework and lectures relevant to the internet minded student of today. A greater emphasis on multimedia and kinesthetic experiences, group projects or online collaborations, and also learning management systems (such as Blackboard used at the University of Chicago) are all ways in which universities are trying to incorporate the internet and create new types of learning more suited to today’s students.6 It has been proven repeatedly that when students are engaged and stimulated in a way they find interesting, the results can be impressive.1 This is why it can often be the case that the same students who struggle to remain focused during a long reading assignment can easily spend hours building a website or editing a video project for a class; those kinds of interactive assignments appeal to young people, and also allow the students to instantly see the products of their work, generating the same instant gratification- which is what makes video games appealing.1

With the rapidly evolving nature of the internet and technology associated with it, it is difficult to tell what the future will bring. It is possible that the problem might fix itself as the students of today become the professors of tomorrow; alternatively, new inventions might bring more challenges in educating generations who have grown up influenced by different technology. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that knowing the effects of influential technology on cognition is key if education is to achieve its maximal level of success with each generation.


  1. Richtel, Matt. “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction.” New York Times. Nov. 21, 2010. URL.
  2. Sparrow, Betsy. Columbia University. Interview, 3:08. July 14, 2011. URL.
  3. Sparrow, Betsy et al. “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips.” SCIENCE, 333 (2011): 776-778. URL.
  4. Block, Jerald J. “Issues for DSM-V: Internet Addiction.” American Journal of Psychiatry, 156, no 3. (2008): 306-307. URL.
  5. Richtel, Matt. Attached to Technology and Paying a Price.” New York Times. June 6, 2010. URL.
  6. Baker, Russell, Erika Matulich, and Raymond Papp. “Teach Me In the Way I Learn: Education and the Internet Generation,” Journal of College Teaching and Learning, 4, no. 4 (2007): 27-32. URL.
  7. Miles, Stuart. “Child Working on Computer” (2011). URL.

Fili Bogdanic is a second-year student at the University of Chicago majoring in Biology and minoring in English. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.

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