How Information Addiction impacts learning

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Students enjoy spending time on the internet and keep informed but, is this learning?

Photo: Bigstock.

Digital content is now part of everyday life, especially for young people. According to data by The American Pew Research Center, 92% of teenagers between 13 and 17 years old use the internet regularly, while 91% of them use it for social media.

People are drawn to the online world because of its unique attributes. Its use offers availability, accessibility, affordability, and sometimes anonymity. But the most appealing feature is the sense of connectivity and closeness it gives us: 80% of teenagers admitted using the internet as the primary channel to keep in touch with friends and socialize.

Feeling connected socially is a basic human need, but when we go online to fulfill this need, it can lead to dynamics that affect the way we learn.

PIU and FOMO: the pillars of Internet Addiction

Pathological Internet Use, or PIU, is the excessive and compulsive use of the internet, motivated by a possible addiction to online presence and activity.

The trigger for this problem is social anxiety that arises when we do not feel connected to current events or people in our lives. This is called Fear Of Missing Out, also known as FOMO. To understand FOMO, we need to explain the process in which internet users end up with a necessity to be online and absorbing information.

A recent study by Haas Business School at Berkeley’s University in California discovered that the attainment of data acts on the brain through the release of dopamine. In other words: to find information on the internet gives us the same type of satisfaction that getting money or food.

“To the brain, information is its own reward, above and beyond whether it's useful.”

Assoc. Prof. Ming Hsu, a neuroeconomist, gets it straight to the reason for which we feel so drawn to “learn” things on the internet, but this knowledge is more comparable to junk food, we make like it a lot, but it does not provide essential nutrition. For Hsu, the search for information online limits the satisfaction of curiosity but, can we call this learning?

Superficial learning vs. Deep learning

Students can experience two levels of learning. The first is when they only concentrate on having a basic idea of the concept to learn and memorize; in this case, it is called superficial learning. The second level is when they make a more significant effort to improve their understanding of the subject and link it to other previous knowledge; in this case, we are talking about deep learning.

The environment in which students are exposed to information online is informal and lacks regulation; people’s motivations to stay connected and informed are linked to PIU and FOMO. This could be a setback or an advantage, depending on the approach.

This could be a chance to reevaluate the way we manage education, to change the viewpoint and start seeing online superficial learning as a starting point more than a waste, treat it as the first step to guide the students to deeper knowledge.

To achieve this, we need to understand that the internet and social media, the biggest entertainment and communication channels since the invention of TV, have very different implications as a medium. Sitting down to watch TV is a unilateral process if we wanted to talk or learned more of what we saw, then we needed to go through other channels.

Internet and social media provide not only the content but also the platforms to research this content further and discuss it. Nonetheless, it ends up a tool without context and without the guidance of a teacher who trains the ability to make the most of this information, like critical thinking, analysis, and dialogue.

The mechanisms that lead to Information Addiction are genuine. But instead of thinking about how to restrain access to information or limit the hours of internet use, it would be interesting to challenge educators to create new methods to take advantage of students’ digital affinity. Make them aware of the relationship between their online activities and the satisfaction that ensues as well as help them to get to real knowledge and skill growth through a process that allows them to flex their critical thinking, their fact-checking, their understanding and their effective communication.