What the Internet Generation Needs to be More Human

By the SMU Social Media Team

You’re settled in for an early night and reach for the novel on your bedside table for some relaxing reading before bed. But then, a notification pops up on your smartphone, which is laying within closer reach, right by your pillow–after all, you have to make sure this device, the digital umbilical cord to your social life, is never far away.

A few text exchanges lead to a quick doom scroll of your newsfeed, and soon you’re too amped up to sleep. You decide to watch a few YouTube videos to wind down. The algorithm swiftly kicks into action, and before you know it, you’ve fallen down a virtual rabbit hole of influencer monologues and can’t stop clicking on the next thumbnail. Meanwhile, that novel lies neglected on your bedside table…

Sound familiar? With smart devices always at hand and high-speed internet helping to load digital content faster than you can consume it; the human race has probably never existed in a greater state of distraction.

And that has very real consequences on your brain.

In her 2018 book Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf explains how the human brain is predisposed to pay attention to new information in our environment, an evolutionary instinct that made a lot of sense when a hunter’s ability to attend to an encroaching predator made the difference between life and death.


“As humans developed the ability to read… our brains changed.”


As humans developed the ability to read, however, our brains changed. Different areas of our brains were activated, and we learned how to sustain and develop ideas, and empathise with the perspectives of others. In other words, the ability to read rewired the human brain, and transformed the nature of human thought.

As we neglect this skill to attend to the ceaseless stream of digital distractions, our brains regress. In a sense, we become less human. In the face of such high stakes, here are some ways you can keep those deep reading skills alive:


1. Build reading into your day

A habit is a powerful thing—once cultivated, it becomes automatic behaviour. So, set aside a fixed time in your schedule and commit to devoting that time to reading. It’s okay to start with just a couple minutes if you’re really out of practice, and slowly build up the duration over time. Make it a fun ritual by reading in your favourite cosy armchair or lighting a scented candle before you start. The key is to stick to the schedule until it becomes a habit.


2. Pick the right book

We all want to be able to say we read War and Peace, but sometimes it’s perfectly fine to set more modest goals, especially at the beginning. There is no shame in picking a pulpy thriller, the trending Young Adult novel of the day, a memoir by a personality you find interesting, or even a self-help tome. Just try to read for pleasure (textbooks and other required reading don’t count). Our tip: revisit a favourite book from your younger days. Children’s reading habits tend to decline from around the age of 12, so it’s those cherished books from before that threshold age that can still trigger fond memories of the pleasure of deep reading.


3. Engage in virtuous vandalism

Once you’ve gotten back into the groove of reading, seek out more challenging books (like War and Peace!) and really apply yourself. Here’s the thing: Deep reading is distinct from superficial reading in that it is supposed to require significant and sustained effort. As academic John C. Bean notes: “When experts read difficult texts, they read slowly and reread often. They ‘nutshell’ passages as they proceed, often writing gist statements in the margins.”


“The marked book is usually the thought-through book.”


A handy way to interact with the text is to make notes as you progress. If you own the book you’re reading, underline striking passages and write down your questions, comments and other thought tangents in the margins as you engage with the ideas being presented. This tip may horrify those who want to keep their books in pristine condition but consider this advice from philosopher Mortimer Jerome Adler: “The marked book is usually the thought-through book.”


4. Make it a group activity

Book clubs may not get as much attention as the latest viral video challenge, but these old-fashioned hangouts are still very influential. In the 1990s, American talk show host Oprah Winfrey’s picks for her eponymous book club became instant bestsellers and kickstarted national conversations. Meanwhile, actress Reese Witherspoon’s Instagram-hosted book club spotlights women-centred stories and has also started shaping the zeitgeist.

Join an online community who shares your tastes in reading, and start having conversations about book characters, plot twists and more with these reading buddies. Or simply start your own book club with your friends. You’ll learn to see the same book from whole new perspectives, and it’ll definitely be more fun than hitting that Like button.


5. Carry a book with you

Waiting for a friend to show up? Stuck on a long commute? If you always keep a book in your bag, then you’ll never have to worry about being bored. Better yet, this is a great way of trying to break the habit of always reaching for your phone when you have a spare second.


6. Put all your devices out of reach

“Choose attention, not distraction.”

Speaking of which—the world will not end if you don’t answer that text right away. Honour your reading time by putting all your distracting devices away and immersing yourself solely in the world of the book. If you find your mind wandering, stare into space, daydream or meditate for a little bit before refocusing on the book at hand. Choose attention, not distraction. Imagine your brain rewiring itself.

Be more human.