Gadgets or unnatural selection: what exactly makes kids “stupider”?

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Gadgets or unnatural selection: what exactly makes kids “stupider”?
Gadgets or unnatural selection: what exactly makes kids “stupider”?

Young people's IQ levels have been declining since the 1990s, and this process may not be stopped. Some people blame smartphones with TVs for everything. Others point to negative selection for intelligence. We are figuring out whether civilization will have time to close the issue before the average IQ of Homo sapiens falls to the level of mental retardation.

Smartphones are often blamed for declining IQ test scores in children, but the reality may be more complex / © Start-Rite Shoes
Smartphones are often blamed for declining IQ test scores in children, but the reality may be more complex / © Start-Rite Shoes

The IQ indicator does not scold only the lazy for bias. Indeed, it has limitations and is often not very informative for individuals with grades above 100.

But this indicator also has an important positive side: it is a fairly reliable quantitative indicator for determining the mental abilities of large masses of people. Individuals with mental retardation have an IQ below 70 (the upper limit of debility). As we will show below, if the tendencies in the mental development of people persist in the next thousand years, their intelligence on average can fall just to these very 70.

The threat is serious. A society consisting of such people will not be able to maintain its own existence. There will be no one to control the machines and repair them, which means that any technogenic civilization will fall. Why is the average intelligence of children declining and is it possible to avoid the death of humanity from stupidity?

Smartphones, tablets and the like: there are problems, but…

Steve Jobs left the world a real bomb in the form of a smartphone. The popularity of these devices is growing. Today, even preschoolers use them, and, as was the case with every generation, parents often fear that children's excessive enthusiasm for technology will adversely affect their mental development.


At first glance, there are grounds for their fears. A study of the brains of schoolchildren aged 9-10 years on MRI showed that those who spend seven or more hours a day behind a screen get a decrease in the thickness of the cerebral cortex. It is directly related to mental activity. Individuals whose IQ falls show accelerated thinning of the cortex. Those with IQs rising show delayed thinning. So are smartphones and tablets a disaster for children's brains?

Not really. First, to be sure of this result, long-term research is needed - and the scientists involved in this work intend to draw final conclusions only after 10 years of observing children.

Secondly, seven hours behind the screen so far is characteristic of only a few percent of children. When a situation is observed in such a small group, it can be explained not by a causal relationship, but quite differently. For example, only children with certain breadth of interests are “stuck” in smartphones for as long as seven hours a day.

So are people getting stupid or not?

Indeed, IQ across the planet is likely to be declining. Again, longer observations are needed to be sure. The IQ test is designed so that 50% of participants in one or another part of the world will score below 100, and 50% above. That is, "one hundred" acts as the average for the population.


Throughout the XX century, the level of "weaving" has grown markedly (Flynn effect). Mass education, more nutritious food (20% of our energy is spent on the brain) and other factors contributed to this. Therefore, following the growing IQ, the content of the tests was repeatedly changed, making them more "severe".

However, in the 1990s, the situation began to make a 180-degree turn. Neuropsychologist Michel Demurger even published the book "Screen Idiots Factory" in 2019. The author is ringing all the bells: from 1999 to 2009, the average IQ of young people at the intersection of school and university fell by 3.8 points. This seems to be a trifle, but, in fact, not really. Extending this trend for 100 years ahead, we will get a drop in intelligence to 62. That is, the XXII century the population of France runs the risk of meeting the mentally retarded.

We do not share the fears of the French author about the global idiocy in such a short time precisely at the expense of telephones. First, 1999-2009 is clearly not the era of smartphones. They simply did not have time to noticeably influence the situation with young people during this period.

Secondly, television, which Demurge so persistently accuses in his book, is also hardly to blame. After all, the first reversal (the beginning of the fall in the average IQ) were noticed by those countries that closely followed the mental level of their youth: Western Europe and Australia. There were TVs in almost every family already in the 1970s, but there was no drop in IQ. On the contrary, up to the 80s, this figure was growing.

It is doubtful that environmental pollution also affected IQ. The reversal of the trend in Germany, Norway, Finland and France happened since the 1990s: that is, after a significant decrease in industrial emissions, which peaked in these countries in the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s.

Culture versus IQ

The most likely reason for the opposite Flynn effect (a drop in IQ since the nineties) is the same as that of the direct one (his rise to the 90s). It is about cultural changes in society. Throughout the 20th century, people believed that the best intelligence and knowledge provided children with the best chances in life.

This controversial idea was continuously instilled in the younger generation. The “culture of excellence in education” encouraged young people to compete in knowledge - and only those children who found it too difficult tried to open another way. In any case, even they had a respect for knowledge.

Fast forward to the 21st century. It is impossible to live in 2019 and think that the conditional Kim Kardashian has achieved something in life thanks to higher education - especially since she does not have one.

As Flynn himself, the discoverer of the effect of the same name, says about our time: “The victory of visual culture [perception] means that fewer people read long novels or books of history. People live in a bubble of the present, which makes them more vulnerable to the influence of information supplied from outside - they simply have nothing of their own, nothing that they could oppose to what they are told. Improving your analytical skills [more] does not make you a better citizen."

In general, history has already had similar examples, a kind of "debunking" of earlier ideas that knowledge is extremely important. The black population of the USA, trying to oppose themselves to whites in everyday culture, for a long time ridiculed those blacks who sought to order, plan their lives or act too "smart".

The results are quite expected: it is African Americans who show the lowest IQ results in the States. And it's not about genes at all. The same blacks, but who came to the United States not so long ago from the Caribbean and therefore did not fall into the millstones of the local black subculture, demonstrate a completely normal IQ.

A largely similar situation can sometimes be observed among our compatriots. Parents who say to the child “Well, what a hell with her, with her studies”, 20 years ago, would have been perceived as marginalized. Today, "Well, to hell with her, with a deuce" is a normal reaction. And many even call for teaching children to be more relaxed about low grades.


IQ at the time of graduation is normally positively associated with the intensity of educational efforts. This means that in the context of modern cultural changes, it can fall. But this will not mean that children and the truth are "getting stupid" - they only try less to learn, and these are different things.

Stupidity - as the most likely killer of civilization

And yet, we are getting stupid. Yes, not at such a frantic pace as France shows us, but the drop in the average level of intelligence is still happening.

It was found quite a long time ago that IQ, regardless of the country, has a negative correlation with fertility. Simply put, people with lower IQs are more likely to have more children these days.

Until 1850, this was not a problem at all for our species. A stupid hunter dies more often than a clever one; a clever peasant can more often feed his children in a hungry year. For centuries, the wealthiest classes in Britain have had about twice as many children per woman as the working class. If a representative of the "lower" classes suddenly had more children, then, due to insufficient nutrition, they could have noticeable health problems, and already in the second generation, the number of their descendants fell because of this.

After 1850, poor nutrition among children in developed countries became a thing of the past, even among the poor. The increase in the income of the population made it possible to feed a large family even for those who did not have a higher education. Meanwhile, having a higher education is positively correlated with the level of IQ. Moreover, geneticists have already identified a large number of genes, the presence of which in a person positively correlates with the likelihood of obtaining a higher education and the level of IQ.

As you might guess, low fertility in individuals with high IQs and increased chances of getting higher education means that such genes of theirs are washed out of the population. Worse, these same genes correlate with health in old age. That is, thanks to the negative selection for genes that correlate with IQ, humanity receives not only a decrease in this indicator, but also a decrease in the likelihood of healthy old age for future generations.

Unfortunately, the problem at this stage is practically insoluble. No one can force people to have more children - such schemes do not work. Even in Singapore, where they are beaten on the heels for administrative offenses and thrown in jail for chewing gum, attempts to get people with higher IQs to reproduce normally fail.

The reason is that such people too easily find excuses to excuse them, allowing them to postpone the birth of children. They then need to get a decent job, then they cannot give birth to a child because of the wife's career, then because of something else. We will not repeat ourselves, all this has already been described in a dystopian film about the future of our species under the telling name "Idiotocracy" (the name was translated incorrectly into Russian):

We repeat: the diagram in the excerpt from the film suffers from sharp exaggerations, but in general, everything is approximately the same.

How many years are left until the victory of stupidity?

According to the scientific works available today, the average rate of decline in the IQ of young people due to negative selection for intelligence is still 0.3 points per decade. This is rather slow: it is impossible to notice such a difference with the naked eye. That is why the current decline in IQ should not be attributed to genes: it is more likely that it is a change in the cultural characteristics of modern humanity. But over a thousand years, this is a drop to an IQ of 70 - that is, massive mental disability.

Let us immediately warn the question of whether it is possible to somehow reduce fertility among individuals who do not have genes that correlate with IQ. While this is unethical, it is theoretically possible. But in practice, the state that does this is no smarter than the person who sticks his hand into a working circular.

The same Singapore tried to sterilize people with IQs well below the norm, offered them a lot of money for it, and so on. But it quickly became clear that, firstly, many people with low IQs do not value money as much as people with high IQs, and do not particularly go towards the government.

Secondly, in Singapore, with its cult of education and intelligence, a demographic catastrophe is expected. For one woman there in her entire life there are only 0, 84 children. This means that each next generation in this country will be more than two times smaller than the previous one - and from an economic point of view, this is a near and inevitable tragedy. Without youth, the budget and pension funds will experience noticeable problems with filling, and consumer demand will inevitably shrink.

Purely theoretically, the solution could be genetic editing of human embryos. Yes, you can add some - if not all the known genes that correlate with IQ and good health in old age - to most children.

But this is pure utopia. For a second, let's even forget about ethical problems: for example, that genetically these will be children of not quite their parents. There are more serious complications: not a single gene manipulation technology has reached the required technical level to do this.

Let us take the latest exercises of a Chinese doctor on twin girls with "resistance" to HIV: both developed mosaicism, that is, some of their cells carry "construction" genes, and some do not. With such a technological level, climbing into that part of DNA that relates to intelligence is like fixing a Swiss watch by hitting a wall in the hope that the details will shift - and everything will work as it should.

Of course, it is possible to hope for the future development of technologies, but it is impossible to predict with confidence whether they will reach the required level in the next thousand years. In addition, as Russian biologist Alexander Markov notes, it is not a fact that the required level of genetic technologies will be achieved before the IQ of the species as a whole drops below 70 - that is, until the moment when our species, on average, becomes, by today's standards, mentally retarded. It is doubtful that a society with such problems will be able to develop or maintain genetic technology.

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