Being constantly connected to the online world may have long-lasting effects on the human brain.
The internet has been around for less than 3 decades, but the technology has already had an immense impact on the way humanity functions. This is apparent to us all in the way people communicate, foster relationships, and source information.
But there is one thing that scientists are still unsure of: What effect is the online world having on human brains? A new review by researchers from five universities in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia attempts to find the answer.
The theory goes that neuroplasticity — or the brain's ability to structurally change over time — means that the experiences and lessons we gain from internet use could be having a significant impact.
Identifying and understanding these changes in children and young adults is particularly important as their brains are still developing. The World Health Organization (WHO) have already issued concern, recommending that children younger than 5 years old should spend no more than 1 hour in front of a screen on any day.
The latest review considered three areas: the capacity for attention and concentration; memory processes; and social cognition.
By examining numerous findings from previous studies, the international team of researchers was able to analyze whether the internet was proving beneficial or detrimental in each of these instances.
Researchers from Harvard University in Boston, MA, Australia's Western Sydney University, and the United Kingdom's King's College London, Oxford University, and the University of Manchester all took part. Their conclusions appear in the journal, World Psychiatry.
Multitasking and memory changes
Researchers first looked at digital multitasking. Evidence showed that doing multiple things online did not improve people's' ability to multitask elsewhere. In fact, it could make people more likely to pay attention to new distractions.
"[T]he 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," explains Joseph Firth, senior research fellow at Western Sydney University's NICM Health Research Institute.
However, more research is necessary to find out the immediate and long-lasting effects of this kind of behavior on young people.
Next, the team studied memory. While previous generations had to store facts mentally, modern humans can now leave factual content to the internet. This may actually provide some benefits to the brain, allowing it to focus on other, more ambitious tasks, the researchers theorize.
"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."
But, again, further research into the long-term cognitive effects of relying on the internet for facts is required. There is also a need to delve deeper into the impact on our spatial memory, especially now that most people go online for navigation help.
Social enhancements — or problems?
Social interaction was the last investigation element. The team found that the brain seems to process online interactions in a surprisingly similar way to real-life ones.
This may be beneficial for older people struggling with feelings of isolation. But young people, on the other hand, appear to be more susceptible to social consequences that arise from online interactions, such as peer pressure and feelings of rejection.
The review failed to find a causal link between internet use and poor mental health. However, the researchers did note that advances such as social media may work as a form of therapy for young people with mental health problems.
Overall, future research needs to focus on young people, as it is somewhat clear that older adults may be positively stimulated by the features the internet offers. We cannot yet make the same conclusions for younger people, however.
Much more to learn about benefits and risks
"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," says Dr. John Torous, a clinical fellow at Harvard Medical School and a co-author of the review. "There are certainly new, potential benefits for some aspects of health, but we need to balance them against potential risks."
Professor Jerome Sarris, deputy director of the NICM Health Research Institute, expresses more concern. "The bombardment of stimuli via the internet, and the resultant divided attention commonly experienced, presents a range of concerns," he says.
"I believe that this, along with the increasing #Instagramification of society, has the ability to alter both the structure and functioning of the brain, while potentially also altering our social fabric."
Prof. Jerome Sarris
As online usage may have just as many bad sides as good, the researchers have recommended a few ways to limit internet use.
Prof. Sarris advises practicing mindfulness, reducing the amount of online multitasking, and "engaging in more in-person interactions."
For children, Dr. Firth highlights the availability of various apps and software programs that parents can use to restrict internet usage on phones and computers.
He also adds that "speaking to children often about how their online lives affect them is also important — to hopefully identify children at risk of cyberbullying, addictive behaviors, or even exploitation — and so enabling timely intervention to avoid adverse outcomes."