Is Internet Use Changing Our Brains?
It’s easy to see how much the internet has changed our lives. Most adults go online daily and more than one in four are online “almost constantly,” according to a recent Pew Research Center report. But is our extensive online activity affecting our brains? That is the question looked at in a recent study published in World Psychiatry.
Joseph Firth, PhD., with Western Sidney University in Australia, and colleagues looked at how internet use may be influencing three areas of functioning
- Attention – the online world offers a constant stream of digital distractions
- Memory – the vast amount of easily available information and the changing way we access it
- Social interactions – social connections and the meshing of online and real world
They reviewed a wide range of research including psychological, psychiatric and neuroimaging studies. They concluded that overall, the research shows that internet use can produce both immediate and sustained changes in each of these areas of cognition.
Attention - The stream of online information and images across multiple media sources encourages us to rapidly switch attention and multi-task rather than maintain focus and may be affecting our ability to concentrate. Research is beginning to show this behavior may be contributing to our increased distractibility and reduced ability to sustain attention.
Smartphones have also led to many of frequently checking your phone for news, social media or personal contact. This behavior is thought to be reinforced by the “information reward” we get with new information.
Memory - The vast amount of easily available information and the changing way we access it may be affecting our memory processes. For example, the rapid access to unlimited information requires us to remember much less. We don’t have to learn or remember things we can easily look up or retrieve online.
Social interactions - Online social settings create “a new interplay between the internet and our social lives, including our self-concepts and self-esteem,” according to Firth and colleagues. The online social world is becoming meshed with our real-world social lives, and could, the authors suggest, lead to social media impacting the real world in unforeseen ways.
Impacts at Different Ages and Life Stages
The study also considered the different uses and impacts of the internet at different ages. Early research is beginning to show that internet use may have different effects on cognitive and social functioning at different ages.
For example, the constant distractions and immediately accessible information may be problematic for children and adolescent brain development. Some research found negative impacts of digital multi-tasking on attention in early adolescents. Higher internet use has been associated with lower verbal abilities among young children. Extensive internet use could also have indirect effects such as interfering with sleep or reducing academic or real-life social interactions.
On the other hand, the authors note, being online may provide positive brain stimulation and support brain function in older adults. Also, while young people “seem particularly prone to the rejections, peer pressure, and negative appraisals” in social media, older adults could potentially tap into online social connections to help overcome isolation.
However, with less than 30 years since the internet became publicly available, the long-term effects are not known, the study authors note. “For better or worse, we are already conducting a mass-scale experiment of extensive Internet usage across the global population.”
Firth J, et al. The “online brain”: how the Internet may be changing our cognition. World Psychiatry, 2019, 18:119-129.
Perrin A. Jiang J. About a quarter of US adults say they are ‘almost constantly’ online. Pew Research Center, March 14, 2018