A review published in World Psychiatry revealed that the internet is affecting our brains and cognition, particularly regarding attentional capacities, memory processes and social interactions.
“Now is a crucial time to begin rigorous investigation of the relationships between internet use and brain health, due to the rapid spread of this new facet of our society,” Joseph Firth, PhD, of the NICM Health Research Institute, Western Sydney University, Australia, and the psychology and mental health division, University of Manchester, U.K., told Healio Psychiatry.
“Obviously, we are already studying how many other aspects of our lifestyle (eg, physical activity, diet, sleep, etc.) influence our brain functioning and mental health, whereas internet use and online time is a 'new one,' which is currently under-researched, but could feasibly be affecting the way our minds work and perhaps even altering the trajectory of development in young people,” he said.
Gathering recent evidence from psychological, psychiatric and neuroimaging research, Firth and colleagues created revised models on how the internet may be changing cognition. Specifically, they examined how internet use may be affecting:
- concentration — because the stream of online information encourages attention across multiple media sources;
- memory — because the vast amount of information available at our fingertips shifts the way we remember things; and
- social cognition — because online social settings can resemble real-world social processes.
Firth and colleagues explained that the internet’s ability to capture and hold attention is not only because of the quality of media content available, but also because of the “underlying design and presentation of the online world.” Many education providers are already noticing the internet’s harmful effects on children’s attention.
The researchers believe the internet affects attentional capacities via hyperlinks, notifications and prompts, which offer a stream of different forms of digital media and encourage people to interact with multiple inputs at the same time — termed “media multi-tasking.” The existing evidence indicates that engaging in multi-tasking via digital media may decrease multi-tasking performance in other settings because it decreases the ability to ignore incoming distractions.
Unlike other transactive (ie, external) memory systems, “the internet does not place any responsibility on the user to retain unique information for others to draw upon,” nor does it require users to remember what or where the exact information is externally stored, according to the investigators.
Firth and colleagues explained in their review that the internet is becoming a “supernormal stimulus” for transactive memory. This means other options for cognitive offloading — like books, friends and community — are becoming redundant because they are outcompeted by the internet’s capabilities for external information storage and retrieval.
“Overall, the internet clearly can provide a ‘superstimulus’ for transactive memory, which is already changing the way we store, retrieve, and even value knowledge,” they wrote. “However, with popular online information sources such as Google and Wikipedia less than 20 years old, it is currently not possible to ascertain how this may eventually be reflected in long-term changes to the structure and function of the human brain.”
It’s possible that social connections formed online are processed in similar ways to those offline, and thus could carry over from the internet to shape “real-world” social interactions, Firth and colleagues wrote. However, social media is bending some social rules, especially among youth. For example, while real-world acceptance and rejection is usually ambiguous, “social media platforms directly quantify social success or failure by providing clear metrics in the form of ‘friends,’ ‘followers’ and ‘likes,’” they wrote.
Firth explained that the internet may have differential effects depending on the user’s age.
“For example, in children, constant use of the internet for engaging in media-multitasking along with high amounts of screen time and online social media could reduce their long-term development of higher cognitive functions, while also limiting their opportunities for in-person social activities,” he said. “In older adults experiencing memory decline and reduced physical functioning, these technologies could be used as a cognitive aid (eg, for memory retrieval) and also facilitate social interactions through the online world.”
Firth told Healio Psychiatry that based on the research, the only sure recommendation for combatting any potential negative effects of internet use is ensuring that the amount of time spent online doesn’t impede taking the time for healthy activities, like exercise, in-person social interaction and getting enough sleep. More research is needed to establish guidelines relating to how long a person should be spending online as well as the online activities that are harmful and helpful, he explained.
Advice for clinicians
“For clinicians, the latest research demonstrates there are indeed multiple potential pathways through which the internet can influence our brain functioning and mental health,” Firth told Healio Psychiatry. “Although further research is required to establish the overall effects, clinicians can 'take seriously' any concerns that their clients may have regarding how their online lives may be affecting their mental well-being.”
“Also, like almost everything, the effects on internet use on cognitive functioning and mental health will certainly differ between individuals — so I think clinicians are actually well-placed to begin observing these effects on a case-by-case basis, and most crucially, to develop strategies for helping people to attenuate or avoid any adverse effects that internet use may be having on their mental well-being,” he added. – by Savannah Demko
Firth J, et al. World Psychiatry. 2019;doi:10.1002/wps.20617.
Disclosure: Firth reports support from a Blackmores Institute Fellowship. Please see the study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.