Is the Internet Really Making Us Dumber?

In the book, Flynn offers a level-headed analysis of the limits and possibilities of intelligence tests. Germany falls in the middle of the Flynn effect phenomenon, with an annual increase of 0.35 IQ points, while countries such as Brazil and Turkey are catching up nearly twice as fast. China has long been playing in the top league, with an average IQ of 105.

Developing countries such as Kenya are also making gains. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is making less progress -- Flynn surmises this is because being subsidized by petrodollars provides little motivation for learning.

Such findings refute the claims of those who warn that humanity is getting dumber. We're "amusing ourselves to death," American media theorist and critic Neil Postman argued in a 1985 book of the same name. Postman blamed television for a decline in cognitive skills. Since then, however, the average IQ in the US has risen by nearly 10 points.

"Digitale Demenz" ("Digital Dementia") is the title of a current best-seller by German psychiatrist Manfred Spitzer of the Ulm University Hospital. "Avoid digital media," Spitzer advises. "As shown here many times over, they truly do make us fat, dumb, aggressive, lonely, sick and unhappy." The provocative psychiatrist compares teaching children to use online media to serving them beer, and providing computers in elementary schools to heroin dealers getting their users hooked. However, in his book, Spitzer only presents the studies that fit with his theory of decline, and prefers to carry out his rants in less discriminating forms of media, such as television and Germany's mass-circulation tabloid Bild, where he makes such bold statements as: "We already have digital dementia."

Spitzer says the term "digital dementia" originated with Korean scientists. More likely, though, it simply comes from a survey one web portal conducted five years ago among its users, who indicated among other things that they were hardly able to remember telephone numbers anymore.

Additionally, Spitzer previously made many of the same claims verbatim in his 2005 book "Vorsicht Bildschirm!" ("Caution, Screen!") Since then, the average German IQ has risen by about 2 points.

New Ways of Thinking Around 1900, there was a similar fashion for hysterical warnings of "nervous disorders" and the weakening of the brain supposedly triggered by technological advances. It was in this environment that a Parisian researcher developed the first intelligence test in 1905.

Then, exactly 100 years ago, Hamburg-based psychologist William Stern invented the "intelligence quotient," or IQ. In the fall of 1917, with Europe at war, Stern received an assignment to select 1,000 out of 20,000 Hamburg children for advanced lessons at school. The researcher chose not to rely on IQ scores but, rather, to conduct intensive observation of the students in the classroom -- he knew the limits of his own tests.

The informative value of IQ tests has been debated ever since their invention. Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman, for example, followed a group of 1,500 gifted children over several decades. The majority of them did not grow up to be new Einsteins, but rather led entirely normal lives and did not even perform above average in their professional lives. It turns out that self-confidence and perserverance, as well as the way a person is raised, have just as important an effect as IQ does.

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