The Internet can alter specific brain regions and affect our attention capacity, memory processes and social interaction, a study has found.
The research, published in the journal World Psychiatry, showed that the Internet can produce both acute and sustained alterations in specific areas of cognition.
The researchers, including those from Oxford University in the UK and Harvard University in the US investigated leading hypotheses on how the Internet may alter cognitive processes.
It further examined the extent to which these hypotheses were supported by recent findings from psychological, psychiatric and neuroimaging research.
The report combined the evidence to produce revised models on how the Internet could affect the brain’s structure, function and cognitive development.
“The key findings of this report are that high-levels of Internet use could indeed impact on many functions of the brain,” said Joseph Firth, Senior Research Fellow at Western Sydney University in Australia.
“For example, the limitless stream of prompts and notifications from the Internet encourages us towards constantly holding a divided attention — which then in turn may decrease our capacity for maintaining concentration on a single task,” said Firth, who led the study.
“Additionally, the online world now presents us with a uniquely large and constantly-accessible resource for facts and information, which is never more than a few taps and swipes away,” he said.
“Given we now have most of the world’s factual information literally at our fingertips, this appears to have the potential to begin changing the ways in which we store, and even value, facts and knowledge in society, and in the brain,” he added.
The recent introduction and widespread adoption of these online technologies, along with social media, is also of concern to some teachers and parents.
The World Health Organization’s 2018 guidelines recommended that young children (aged 2-5) should be exposed to one hour per day, or less, of screen time.
However, the report also found that the vast majority of research examining the effects of the Internet on the brain has been conducted in adults — and so more research is needed to determine the benefits and drawbacks of Internet use in young people.
Firth said although more research is needed, avoiding the potential negative effects could be as simple as ensuring that children are not missing out on other crucial developmental activities, such as social interaction and exercise, by spending too much time on digital devices.
“To help with this, there are also now a multitude of apps and software programs available for restricting Internet usage and access on smartphones and computers — which parents and carers can use to place some ‘family-friendly’ rules around both the time spent on personal devices, and also the types of content engaged with,” he said.
“Alongside this, speaking to children often about how their online lives affect them is also important — to hopefully identify children at risk of cyberbullying, addictive behaviours, or even exploitation — and so enabling timely intervention to avoid adverse outcomes,” said Firth.
“The findings from this paper highlight how much more we have to learn about the impact of our digital world on mental health and brain health. There are certainly new potential benefits for some aspects of health, but we need to balance them against potential risks,” said John Torous, a clinical fellow at Harvard Medical School.