Will modern digital communications permanently affect human behavior?

Digital communications are convenient. Maybe too convenient. See more cell phone pictures.

Thousands of years ago, humans communicated only through spoken languages. Communities were small and mobile. Gradually, people developed writing, creating a more permanent form of communication. As a result, folklore and oral tradition transitioned into literature. At the same time, humans stopped roving as hunter-gatherers and began settling in towns and cities. The invention of written language helped people keep a record of their culture and history even as their society became more complex.

Today, we have more ways to communicate than in any other period in history. We can dash off an electronic message to people living on the other side of the planet -- or even out in space! Communication is practically instantaneous as if you were speaking to someone in person. But has digital communication changed how we behave?

In some superficial ways, the answer is clearly yes. Just a few decades ago people didn't carry phones with them wherever they traveled. Today, owning a cell phone is common in many countries. And cell phones have evolved since their invention. While early cell phones were only good at making calls, today's phones can text, surf the Web and run applications on top of basic phone service.

Even though cell phones have only become popular over the last couple of decades, we've already seen consumer behavior change as a result. The rise in popularity of SMS messages -- better known as text messaging -- has overtaken voice calls [source: Reardon]. The United States Census Bureau estimated the total number of text messages sent by U.S. citizens at around 110 billion [source: U.S. Census Bureau].

Social networks have made a big impact on behavior as well. A survey by Prompt Communications in 2009 found that more respondents used Facebook to stay in touch with friends and family than e-mail or SMS messages.

But will digital communication change behavior beyond how we choose to send and receive messages?


Are Instant Communications Smart or Dumb?

Are digital communications turning us into thoughtless, rude jerks?
Are digital communications turning us into thoughtless, rude jerks?

Digital communication gives us the ability to communicate with others practically instantaneously no matter where they might be. And our shift toward relying on text messaging means that we compose and read messages with a maximum limit of 160 characters -- fewer if you're using a service like Twitter. Is that affecting our behavior?

Nicholas Carr, a technology and business writer, hypothesizes that digital communication might hurt our ability to focus on tasks like reading a book. Carr's evidence is mostly anecdotal, but he makes a case for the Internet in general contributing to a decline in concentration. He argues that as we depend more heavily on constant stimuli from the Internet, including communicating with friends, we lose the ability to settle down to more demanding tasks [source: Carr].

Carr builds his case partly by examining how human behavior and thought has changed over the centuries as we developed written languages. He also quotes philosophers who felt that the development of the printing press would lead to a decline in wisdom. Could digital communication turn us into morons?

Jamais Cascio, another writer for The Atlantic, doesn't think so. Cascio said that humans aren't losing intelligence due to digital communication and the Internet. Instead, our brains are adapting to the technology. Our intelligence is redirected -- we're learning how to ask questions through digital communication to get the answers we need. We may not be as good at focusing on a single task as we once were, but now our intelligence is more fluid [source: Cascio].

Both writers agree that technology is shaping the way we think. As a result, our behavior is changing as well. We expect faster results when we need to know the answer to a question. We bombard ourselves with information from multiple sources at once rather than settling on a single one. This could lead to us becoming unfamiliar with concentrating on a single task. But since very few serious studies on the matter exist, it's hard to say if the change would be permanent or not.

Learn more about digital communication and other subjects by following the links on the next page.

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  • Business Wire. "Prompt Survey Finds Facebook More Popular Than Email or SMS to Keep in Touch with Friends and Family." Dec. 11, 2009. (April 5, 2010) http://www.businesswire.com/portal/site/home/permalink/?ndmViewId=news_view&newsId=20091211005168&news>
  • Carr, Nicholas. "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" The Atlantic. July/Aug. 2008. (April 2, 2010) http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/6868/
  • Cascio, James. "Get Smarter." The Atlantic. July/Aug. 2009. (April 2, 2010) http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/6868/
  • Cheng, Jacqui. "Texting more popular than calling in the US, despite costs." Ars Technica. Dec. 16, 2009. (April 5, 2010) http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/news/2009/12/texting-more-popular-than-calling-in-the-us-despite-costs.ars
  • Horrigan, John. "The Mobile Difference." The Pew Research Center. March 25, 2009. (April 1, 2010) http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/5-The-Mobile-Difference--Typology.aspx
  • Ostrow, Adam. " Sharing on Facebook Now More Popular than Sharing by Email." Mashable. July 20, 2009. (April 5, 2010) http://mashable.com/2009/07/20/facebook-sharing-data/
  • Prompt Communications. "Prompt survey finds Facebook more popular than email or SMS to keep in touch with friends and family." Dec. 11, 2009. (April 5, 2010) http://www.prompt-communications.com/news_pdfs/2009_dec_prompt.pdf
  • Reardon, Marguerite. "Americans text more than they talk." CNET. Sept. 22, 2008. (April 5, 2010) http://news.cnet.com/8301-1035_3-10048257-94.html
  • U.S. Census Bureau. "Section 24: Information and Communications." Statistical Abstract of the United States 2009. http://www.census.gov/prod/2009pubs/10statab/infocomm.pdf