Few aspects of our lives, these days, fail to invite the question: "How does that fit with the Internet?" Even so, the conjunction of the Internet and cognitive development appears to have been neglected by otherwise eager commentators. Certainly there has been consideration of cognitive development and computers. But that is a coarser-grained relationship. Accessing and navigating distributed networks is a more particular form of computer-based activity. Insofar as such activity has been considered significant for psychological development, that consideration has tended to focus only on issues of social and emotional development.
What makes the Internet distinctive as a species of computer use? And how could this activity impinge on children's cognitive growth? Arguably, accessing the Internet has much in common with other computer tasks. Yet some of these common features are exaggerated in the case of the Internet so that they seem to redefine the nature of the experience. For one thing, accessing the World Wide Web is significantly more hip than most other things someone might do with a personal computer. Second, the activity is pervasive: PCs are bundled with Internet capability and access is inexpensive. Third, the information available through the Internet far exceeds even the richest offline library. Moreover, material on the Web is fluid: It gets updated (well, sometimes) and it is generative--embracing the infinite possibilities that arise from interpersonal communication.
The Internet's implications
I suggest there are at least four other features of Internet use that are shared with conventional computer multimedia, but take on new significance by virtue of the Internet's accessibility and scope. I will put these features into two groups.
The first group aligns the features of interactivity with multiple functionality. By "interactivity," I mean that the way we handle documents accessed over computer networks is highly mobile--we can move between and around material comfortably and quickly. The "multiple functionality" of Internet refers to the ease with which the same application (say, a Web browser) can host a range of activities. So, in text, audio or video formats, we can certainly access archives of documents but, also, a variety of broadcasting. We can listen to music, we can play games, we can communicate with groups or other individuals. Why is such an environment cognitively interesting? In a U.K. study supported by the Economic and Social Research Council's "Virtual Society" program, I have found that undergraduates have become highly animated--agitated almost--in using their networked PCs. Activities that might traditionally have attracted sustained and focused engagement seem more vulnerable to desktop distraction. I suggest we extrapolate that to our concerns for cognitive development. That we notice a significant site for learning allows vigorous multitasking. Where this is the case, we must consider that strong new forms of cognitive practice are being encultured.
My second group of significant Internet features aligns the often solitary nature of Internet use with the relatively undisciplined nature of the Web as an information repository. The gloss on this situation is that it leaves learners more "autonomous." The Internet is a "learner-centered" technology.
Such upbeat assessments avoid consideration of whether learning and intellectual development depend on getting autonomy and scaffolded direction into a balance. At the core of that issue is how we view knowledge itself. In particular, is it something potentially pre-packaged; something that can be "delivered" to Web browsers. Or is it something to be negotiated through discursive experiences supported by the communities of practice that learners are invited to enter? If the Internet serves to commodify knowledge, we risk deep changes to the ways young people engage with ideas in both an emotional and an intellectual sense.
The need for research
The concerns expressed above invite research with some urgency. They are not concerns that might arouse theorists of cognitive development who stress inviolate stages and patterns of structural change.
Yet other theoretical traditions should find these new technologies seductive. In particular, cultural theories of cognitive development stress that we frame cognition as a portfolio of "interpretative practices"--arising from children's various contacts with the rituals, institutions, artifacts and technologies of culture.
It is puzzling that even theorists steeped in this tradition seem slow to see the relevance of new information technologies to their preferred ways of understanding development. Shifts in the way that children are relating to knowledge may be happening faster than we are organizing a research agenda.
Charles Crook is Reader in Psychology at the department of human sciences, Loughborough University, U.K.