Internet map 1024 – transparent/The Opte Project

Recently, we noted that many executives at high tech companies limit the time their children spend on new media, and that too much new media use can prevent the deep attention required for transferring information from short term to long term memory.

This is a serious issue for young people because some things—the alphabet, the times tables, the capitals of countries, key dates, etc., are not intuitive. They are committed to long term memory so that one can learn a great many other things through them. Eventually, we learn enough that we can use intuition and reflection.

For example, if a student learns that the American Civil War took place between 1861 and 1865, and that women gained the right to vote in that country in 1920, she can assume that women did not vote during the Civil War era. But to grasp the possible significance of this fact to the carnage (that is, use intuition and reflection), she must keep dates straight in her head. If the bulk of what she can remember was big news in her Twitter feed for the last ten minutes, the basic events that shaped history will seem a confused blur.

To avoid this fate and learn effectively from the Internet, it helps to note some basic differences between reading on line and reading in print. A recent study of college students at the University of Houston (Texas) found that “those who read printed news publications read more news and also remember more news than those who read news online. Study author Arthur D. Santana offered,

“The nature of the Web as a medium that has subsumed virtually all others makes it a site for a variety of uses, including commerce, communication, gaming, and of course, news. The print newspaper, however, is generally dedicated mostly to news, thus in choosing a particular medium, users bring preformed attitudes about what to expect.”

Santana said that unlike print news, online news is ephemeral; it can appear and disappear without warning, creating an element of distraction. It can also hasten the impression that since stories and headlines are apt to vanish, they are perhaps not worth remembering.

“At the same time, the knowledge that the information they can find online, even if it disappears after reading, is immediately electronically archived and thus imminently retrievable may make readers less apt to feel they need to store it in their memory,” Santana said.

And that’s a problem for young people, who especially need to store information in long term memory.

In a recent article in Scientific American, Ferris Jabr tells us,

… evidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension. Compared with paper, screens may also drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it a little harder to remember what we read when we are done. A parallel line of research focuses on people’s attitudes toward different kinds of media. Whether they realize it or not, many people approach computers and tablets with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper.

To address this issue, a group of teachers working through the University of North Carolina School of Education has put together some observations and suggestions that might be useful for parents to review with teens. Here are some of them, interwoven with my own suggestions:

1. Use ad blockers, and avoid notifications of new mail, wherever possible. One can make time to check one’s mail later. One strategy that works well for me is to copy large chunks of significant text into a word processor, adding the URL. Then it can be read on screen without distraction. Key facts and figures can be highlighted, and the rest of the material deleted, except for the URL. Alternatively, a longer piece can be printed out as needed, and read on the bus or while waiting in line. Then notes can be made using the version saved in word processing. 

2. Students would benefit from knowing what top-level domain extensions usually signify. For example, suppose the student is interested in the question of whether there is intelligent life on other planets in our galaxy: .gov is the U.S. government. .edu is an educational institution, usually in the United States. .com is the usual choice of businesses, and .org or .net is common among non-profits. There are also country-specific domain names: .ca for Canada, .nl for the Netherlands, .za for South Africa and so forth.

With respect to intelligent life, the student can see that, the US space agency, is a wise first stop. Some of those folk have actually been in space! The .edu sites probably avoid sensationalism, but may be fairly academic. A .org site (, for example) represents a group dedicated to a cause. is a theoretical physics institute in Canada (not California), one of whose members may have some useful thoughts to offer. The main thing is, the student has some idea of how to approach information from different types of domains. Also note the University of Colorado’s suggestions.

Finally, with anything on the Internet, I always say, if it sounds unbelievable, don’t believe it, and when in doubt, doubt.

See also:

Hi tech parents know that overuse of Internet media changes thinking patterns (It can mean constant distraction rather than the deep attention required for transferring information from short to long term memory.)

Why Steve Jobs was a low tech parent, and why it isn’t really all that surprising

Some useful information on how to conduct an efficient Google search:


Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...