It seems impossible that the internet has only been with us for less than three decades. Technology has already had an immense impact on humanity. People have altered the way they communicate and foster relationships as well as the way information is provided.
There is one detail that scientists are not sure about: what effect does the Internet have on the human brain? A new study, conducted by researchers from five universities in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, tries to find the answer.
The theory says that neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to change structurally over time, means that the experiences and lessons we draw from the use of the Internet may have a significant echo in it.
Identifying and understanding these changes in children and young adults is particularly important as their brains are still developing. The World Health Organization (WHO) has already expressed concern, recommending that children under the age of 5 should not spend more than 1 hour a day in front of any type of screen.
The study, which was published in the journal World Psychiatry, took into account three areas: attention span and concentration; memory processes; and social cognition. By examining numerous findings from previous studies, the researchers were able to analyze whether the Internet was proving beneficial or harmful in each of these cases.
Regarding digital multitasking, evidence showed that doing several things at once on the Internet did not improve the ability of individuals to perform multiple tasks elsewhere. It could increase the likelihood that people would become much more distracted.
"The unlimited flow of Internet messages and notifications encourages us to constantly maintain divided attention, which, in turn, can diminish our ability to maintain concentration on a single task," explains Joseph Firth, a labour leader.
However, more research is needed to discover the immediate and lasting effects of this type of behaviour on young people.
Then they studied memory. While previous generations had to store data mentally, today's humans make use of the Internet. In fact, this may provide some benefits to the brain, allowing it to focus on more ambitious tasks, the researchers theorize. "Since we now have most of the objective information in the world literally at our fingertips, this seems to have the potential to begin to change the ways we store, and even value, facts and knowledge in society and the brain.
Once again, more research is needed on the long-term cognitive effects of relying on the Internet for data.
Social interaction was the last element of research. The team found that the brain seems to process online interactions in a surprisingly similar way to real life. This can be beneficial for older people struggling with feelings of isolation. But young people, on the other hand, seem to be more susceptible to the social consequences of Internet 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 noted that advances such as social networking can function as a form of therapy for young people with mental health problems.
There's still a lot to learn
"The findings in this paper highlights how much more we need to learn about the impact of our digital world on mental health and brain health," study co-author John Torous said. "There are certainly new potential benefits for some aspects of health, but we need to balance them with potential risks.
Reference: The “online brain”: how the Internet may be changing our cognition. Joseph Firth John Torous Brendon Stubbs Josh A. Firth Genevieve Z. Steiner Lee Smith Mario Alvarez‐Jimenez John Gleeson Davy Vancampfort Christopher J. Armitage Jerome Sarris First published: 2019 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20617