on whether we are creating the first generation with “lower IQ than their parents”


on whether we are creating the first generation with “lower IQ than their parents”

The ‘digital natives’ are the first children with a lower IQ than their parentsWith that provocative headline, the BBC published a few days ago an interview with Michel Desmurget, a French researcher who has just published in Spain ‘The digital cretin factory’, a book about screens, myths and neuroscience. And, as a journalist, I get it, it’s a round phrase, it has a catch and it works well.

The only problem is that it is not accurate. And it is not something that only I say, Desmurget himself recognizes in his book something that we have been holding for years: that “digital natives” don’t exist. Furthermore, in the same interview, he explains that, “unfortunately, it is not yet possible to determine the specific role of each factor, including for example pollution (especially early exposure to pesticides) or exposure to screens. “

That is to say, Desmurget catches a well known phenomenon: the stagnation of the “Flynn effect” (the steady rise in intelligence scores around the world that researchers have been looking at for more than a century) and relates it to the advent of digital culture, recognizing that it is simply not possible to. It is somewhat striking because his book makes much needed work ‘demolishing’ unjustified myths that try to hide the negative effects of digital culture and screens. Precisely what he does in this interview; but in the opposite direction.

A generation with less IQ than their parents?

Lets start by the beginning. In 1984, New Zealand researcher James R. Flynn realized that curiously Americans’ mean IQ scores had grown “massively” between 1932 and 1978. Picking up on this idea, a few later, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in their controversial book ‘The Bell Curve’ coined the term “Flynn effect” to refer to how the results of intelligence tests rose significantly around the world.

Were we getting smarter? In a technical sense, we could say yes. General intelligence, one of the most curious psychological traits we have found, seemed to be growing year after year in each subset of the world population that we studied. Although it was never really clear what was happening, there are several explanations that were on the table: from improvements in nutrition and sanitation to an improvement in education (or that the trend towards smaller families allowed parents to dedicate more resources to them ), dozens of factors have been proposed to explain this growth.

In 2004, while examining Norwegian intelligence test data between 1950 and 2002, Jon Martin Sundet realized that growth had stalled. This “slowdown” of the Flynn Effect began to be confirmed in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Australia or Iceland; and, indeed, the latest Norwegian studies not only abounded in the idea, but began to point out that, beyond the stagnation, the results were beginning to be worse.

And, as Desmurget finely points out in the interview, we don’t know why either. Thousands of pages have been written about the causes (genetic or environmental) that may have been behind this growth and decline. of the IC throughout the 20th century, but we have not come up with a scheme with which we can agree. What we do know is that this stagnation (and subsequent decline) only affects some specific countries. Meanwhile, globally, the world’s average intelligence continues to grow.

Therefore, although it is imprecise to say that the young people of this generation will have a lower IQ than that of their parents (in most places, that’s just a lie), this is not the biggest problem. Taking into account the future that the most developed countries draw and that IQ has traditionally been considered a key factor in the future well-being of individuals, the biggest problem is that we don’t know why this happens. And, indeed, assigning it to the screens is not an answer: it is simplistic.

To what extent are screens a problem?

However, if we leave the interviews aside and go to his written assignments, Desmurget and I agree on this. Above all, because what interests him is not intelligence. Desmurget is a researcher specialized in cognitive neuroscience who has dedicated several books to the world of screens and how they affect cognitive performance. The first, from 2011, was called ‘TV lobotomie’; the second, which is published now, is called ‘The Digital Cretin Factory’.

He is very aware of what the effects of screens can and cannot explain, and in that sense the book has very interesting findings: for example, it devotes several chapters to demolish popular ideas such as ‘digital natives’ or the belief that technology is always positive for the cognitive development of children and adolescents. In addition, it reviews quite accurately the methodological limitations of the most popular studies that have been put forward in favor of the safety of new technologies. Finally, it does a good summary of arguments against screens (arguments that we will talk about in the near future).

However, often he makes many of the mistakes that he himself points out with the intention of “getting society out of its protechnological dream”. And it is that, although it is true that screens have an impact on the functional and structural development of the brain; Moreover, although we must denounce the ‘myths’ that reject that there may be problems in that digital Arcadia, the truth is that the changes that today’s youth are undergoing go far beyond the screens. Deep down, the world is immersed in a huge social experiment that we do not know where it will take us. Nobody knows, neither those who are in favor, nor those who are against.

So behind all of Desmurget’s inflated rhetoric, what we find is a call to reflection. It’s not that new technologies are making us dumber; but we have to learn to use it for our interests, those of society as a whole. The problem, and in that Desmurget is right, is that it is much easier said than done.

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