What Rots Your Brain More? The Internet or Television?

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Pundits have been debating whether media destroys our brains for at least 70 years. Strangely, the terms they used to criticize TV decades ago sound a lot like the ones they use to criticize the internet now. See if you can guess which of these quotes are about TV, and which are about the internet.

I've excised the TV and internet-related words from these quotes, using a [] symbol. There's an answer code below. There are a few distinctions between how we talk about television and how we talk about the internet, which I'll discuss after you go through the answer code. But there are also an awful lot of similarities.


1. []'s conversations promote incoherence and triviality . . . With [], we vault ourselves into a continuous, incoherent present.


2. My real worry has less to do with the overthrow of human intelligence by [] and more with the rapid erosion of certain ways of thinking—their demotion, as it were. I mean reflection, a contextual understanding of information, imaginative projection. I mean, in my shorthand, intransitive thinking. Contemplation. Thinking for its own sake ...

3. For surely we shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communication to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must be faced if we are to survive. I mean the word survive literally. If there were to be a competition in indifference, or perhaps in insulation from reality, then Nero and his fiddle, Chamberlain and his umbrella, could not find a place on [].


4. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your [] and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper ... to distract you ... I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

5. My mind isn't going—so far as I can tell—but it's changing. I'm not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I'm reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I'd spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That's rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.


6. I am, when you stop to think of it, a member of a fairly select group: the final handful of American novelists who learned to read and write before they learned to eat a daily helping of [] bullshit.

7. The impact of heavy [] use on kids' social, emotional and cognitive development is only beginning to be studied, and the emergent results are serious. While the research is still in its early stages, it suggests that [] may actually be changing how our brains work.


8. The important development of social skills, understanding the consequences of one's actions, learning to vary ones behavior in response to particular social experiences, are limited in the child who spends time [].


1. Neil Postman, writing about television

2. Sven Birkherts, writing about the internet

3. Edward R. Murrow, speaking about television

4. Newton Windlow, speaking to Congress about television

5. Nicholas Carr, writing about the internet

6. Stephen King, writing about television

7. Chelsea Clinton, writing about the internet

8. David Perlmutter writing about television


Same Old Fears

What we see in these quotes are several fears voiced about television and the internet almost equally. Both are "bullshit," as King eloquently puts it, and both are changing the way our minds work. Pundits worry that both forms of media will affect children's social and cognitive development. And they worry about their own hard-won skills as readers eroding. Both television and the internet have inspired eloquent essays by people who believe their ability to read books has been affected by staring at screens/monitors all day.


You can find similar fears about our minds and our children also haunted thinkers in the 1930s who were dealing with a world that had been changed by radio and movies. And in the nineteenth century, cheap, mass produced "penny dreadful" novels were going to bring down civilization. To a certain extent, these fears seem to be timeless — new forms of communication scare us, especially when information becomes faster and more technologically-mediated.

But in other ways, these fears are very specific to the media they are criticizing. Centuries ago, critics didn't worry about theater as a medium — but they did worry about the topics of particular plays. Of course, anxieties about the contents of our stories haven't gone away. Censorship of various kinds of "unacceptable" materials continues unabated, for reasons that range from political to cultural. But ever since the nineteenth century, we have feared media formats too.


The Scariest Media Formats in History

With each new medium — film, television, internet — we've encountered very specific concerns. Many of you probably guessed correctly on the quotes above because people never seemed to worry about television shortening our attention spans. That's a huge concern with the internet.


With television, you hear a lot of concerns about people becoming passive, or surveying a "wasteland." Television is perceived as a medium that pacifies people, while the internet makes them hyper. Again, these are personal perceptions — as even Clinton will admit, the neuroscience here is in such early stages that we can't make any reasonable claims based on it.

If you look back at criticism of movies, one of the big issues that critics discussed was movie theaters. They feared for children sitting unsupervised in big theaters, where adults might prey on them, or older kids might introduce them to crime or sex. With every new medium, specific anxieties arise about how we watch it, or how we engage with it.


Ultimately these fears of each new medium come down to how people are interacting with each other. Are we huddling in dark rooms together, in a dream state, consuming mass produced fantasies? Are passively drinking in commercials and entertainment by ourselves, or in living rooms where we ignore our families to catch the latest episode of The Bachelor? Or are we hunched over a monitor in our bedrooms, frantically typing to anonymous strangers, getting hopped up on porn and vitriol until we ... go nuts and kill somebody?


That "go nuts and kill somebody" fear hasn't changed at all, since the age of penny dreadfuls. Lurking beneath all these specific concerns is often that one, stark horror — that somehow our media formats will erode our minds and soften our reason enough that we no longer understand the difference between right and wrong. First we'll descend into music piracy, then rampant trolling ... and eventually we'll have spent so much time screaming at each other in YouTube comments that we dehumanize everyone in the world and kill 'em all.

Of course, if there's one thing older than worrying about how media will rot our brains, it's the actual practice of braining each other.