How the online world affects the human brain | Sunday Observer

How the online world affects the human brain

June 14: The internet has been around for less than three 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) has already issued concern, recommending that children younger than five years old should spend no more than one 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.

“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,” says 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 behaviour 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.

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.”

Prof. 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.

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.”