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“Google is ‘ruining our memories’, study claims”

by on 2015/07/10

For many of us, accessing information on the web is not only a daily occurrence, but perhaps even an hourly one. The easy availability of information possibly means there’s less need to retain some of those things in our own memory. After all, if we forget, it’s a simple case of checking again. But recent media reports suggest the ubiquity of the internet might be causing us to develop ‘digital amnesia’.

What did the media say?

According to the Telegraph’s headline, “Google is ‘ruining our memories’, study claims”. It’s a pretty bold statement so we should expect a robust piece of research to underlie its claims. The piece suggests that our reliance (or over-reliance) on technology means we might struggle to recall things such as phone numbers. It refers to this as ‘digital amnesia’, and cites figures from a new survey suggesting that “just under half of connected adults cannot recall their partner’s phone number, while 71 percent can’t remember their children’s”.

Of course, this isn’t to say that using technology is causing us to forget these details, but rather that knowing they’re saved elsewhere means we probably won’t make an effort to memorise them ourselves. The Telegraph alludes to that, but doesn’t really go much further. Given the sparse details presented, the headline appears to be little more than another click-bait lure, rather than an informative account of something we should take seriously.

What did the researchers actually do?

Firstly, the research being reported was a survey, commissioned by the Kaspersky Lab (the software company specialising in antivirus protection and internet security). The title of the report, “The rise and impact of digital amnesia: Why we need to protect what we no longer remember”, should give you an idea where their interest in this is coming from. Briefly, Kaspersky Lab commissioned a market research company to survey 6,000 adults from a number of European countries, including 1,000 from the UK. The report had some academic input too, with Kathryn Mills, a PhD student from University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, reviewing it, and additional comments from Dr Maria Wimber, from the University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology. In the survey, participants were asked a range of questions about their use of digital technology and how they remembered various important things, such as phone numbers, giving the figures quoted above.

Interestingly, the report refers to digital amnesia as forgetting information once it’s been stored in some device, but in many cases it will never have been remembered in the first place (for example, a parent setting up their child with their first mobile phone; once the new number is safely stored under Golden Child it’s unlikely to be looked at in numeral form again). Is this partly the creation of a new fear to sell us some solution? Cynical observers would probably say yes. The difference between having those numbers on a phone versus in a traditional diary or notebook is that our digital devices can be better secured, and companies are very ready to do just that. For a fee. Indeed, that’s what the report from Kaspersky Labs ultimately leads to.

That’s not to say the development of technology won’t impact our thinking skills in interesting ways. However, to study those we need properly designed research that takes interesting clues from surveys such as this, and poses questions to be tested. Surveys can often be a useful starting point, but they cannot be used to make the kinds of claims suggested by the media in this case. While the Telegraph clearly referred to the origins of the survey in this instance, it didn’t help the reader understand how the evidence might justify the headline. Sadly, the evidence here is lacking and something we looked at recently with the “health risks of skinny jeans” story.

The bottom line. 

Do make sure your personal details, photos, bank accounts, and all those other important bits of information you have on your phone, computer or online are properly stored and secure. But don’t fret too much about forgetting things you never tried to remember in the first place. After all, with every development there is a chorus of disapproval from those believing it marks the end of human thinking as we know it. Socrates said so of the written alphabet, and that seems to have done us no harm.

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