It doesn’t take an expert to confirm that people are spending more time on the internet. For those interested in exact quantitative measures, consider this: a Pew Research Center survey found one-fifth of Americans self-report going online "almost constantly" and 73 percent admitting they go online on a daily basis.
Now, researchers from the University of California, Santa Cruz and University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign have found how an increased dependency on the internet impacts our problem solving abilities, recall and learning. The study, published in the journal Memory, looked at the odds of a person reaching out to use a device as an aide tool when answering questions.
The researchers divided participants into two groups: one that used their memory and another that used Google. After being asked to answer difficult trivia questions, the subjects were given easier questions and the option to answer from memory or with the assistance of a search engine. The study found that those who used the internet in the initial round of questions were far more likely to turn to Google during the second round than their peers who used their memory. In fact, 30 percent of subjects who first used the internet did not bother to attempt simpler questions from memory.
"Memory is changing. Our research shows that as we use the internet to support and extend our memory we become more reliant on it,” said Benjamin Storm, lead author of the study, in a statement. “Whereas before we might have tried to recall something on our own, now we don't bother. As more information becomes available via smartphones and other devices, we become progressively more reliant on it in our daily lives."
This phenomenon of relying on memory aides is known in the scientific community as cognitive offloading. According to Evan Risko, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Waterloo, cognitive offloading is not new. In a review published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Risko acknowledges that cognitive offloading has perks—namely the convenience factor—but it also comes with disadvantages.
“Cognitive offloading undoubtedly brings huge benefits, but also potential costs,” said Sam Gilbert, a Royal Society research fellow at University College London and co-author of the review, in a statement. “We are just beginning to understand these effects. For example, how can technology allow us to remain independent as we grow older, and what might the downsides be to relying on external devices?"
Why do people get dependent? Risko and Gilbert theorize people indulge cognitive offloading when they feel it’s more efficient than their own intrinsic abilities or when they are "capacity limited" in their cognitive abilities.
"If you're allowed to store some to-be-remembered information on a computer, chances are you won't devote cognitive real estate to remembering it," says Risko. "As a result, your ability to remember that information without the computer will likely be reduced. There's little doubt that these new technologies are affecting what we remember."