An international team of researchers, led by Dr Joe Firth, a Blackmores Institute supported Senior Research Fellow at NICM Health Research Institute, Western Sydney University and Honorary Research Fellow at The University of Manchester, have found the Internet can produce both acute and sustained alterations in specific areas of cognition, which may reflect changes in the brain, affecting our attentional capacities, memory processes, and social interactions.
In a first of its kind review published in World Psychiatry and drawing on recent psychological, psychiatric and neuroimaging findings, the researchers examined several key hypotheses on how the Internet may be changing our cognition. They found that high-levels of Internet use could indeed impact on many functions of the brain.
The researchers combined the evidence to produce revised models on how the Internet could affect the brain’s structure, function and cognitive development. Dr Firth said:
“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,”
“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.”
“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.”
Professor Jerome Sarris, Deputy Director and Director of Research at NICM Health Research Institute, Western Sydney University and senior author on the report, is concerned over some of the potential impacts of increasing Internet use on the brain.
“The bombardment of stimuli via the Internet, and the resultant divided attention commonly experienced, presents a range of concerns,” said Professor Sarris.
“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.”
“To minimise the potential adverse effects of high-intensity multi-tasking Internet usage, I would suggest mindfulness and focus practice, along with use of ‘Internet hygiene’ techniques (e.g. reducing online multitasking, ritualistic ‘checking’ behaviours, and evening online activity, while engaging in more in-person interactions),” said Professor Sarris.
Co-author and director of the digital psychiatry program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a clinical fellow at Harvard Medical School, Dr John Torous added:
“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.”
Oxford research fellow and study co-author, Dr Josh Firth added:
“It’s clear the Internet has drastically altered the opportunity for social interactions, and the contexts within which social relationships can take place. So, it’s now critical to understand the potential for the online world to actually alter our social functioning, and determine which aspects of our social behaviour will change, and which won’t.”
The research paper can be accessed in the June issue of World Psychiatry online at https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20617
World Psychiatry. 2019 rel="noopener noreferrer" Jun;18(2):119-129. doi: 10.1002/wps.20617.