The research, published in the journal World Psychiatry, found the Internet can produce both acute and sustained alterations in specific areas of cognition, which may reflect changes in the brain.
The researchers investigated leading hypotheses on how the Internet may alter cognitive processes, and further examined the extent to which these hypotheses were supported by recent findings from psychological, psychiatric and neuroimaging research.
“The key findings of this report are that high-levels of Internet use could indeed impact many functions of the brain,” said Joseph Firth, from the Western Sydney University in Australia. “For example, 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,” said Firth.
“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,” he said. “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,” said Firth.
The widespread adoption of these online technologies, along with social media, is also of concern to some teachers and parents, researchers said. The World Health Organization’s 2018 guidelines recommended that young children (aged 2-5) should be exposed to one hour per day, or less, of screen time. However, the report also found that the vast majority of research examining the effects of the Internet on the brain has been conducted in adults.
More research is needed to determine the benefits and drawbacks of Internet use in young people, according to researchers from Western Sydney University, Harvard University in the US, and Kings College, Oxford University and University of Manchester in the UK. Firth said although more research is needed, avoiding the potential negative effects could be as simple as ensuring that children are not missing out on other crucial developmental activities, such as social interaction and exercise, by spending too much time on digital devices.
“To help with this, there are also now a multitude of apps and software programmes available for restricting Internet usage and access on smartphones and computers which parents and care takers can use to place some ‘family-friendly’ rules around both the time spent on personal devices, and also the types of content engaged with,” Firth said.
He further added “Speaking to children often about how their online lives affect them is also important to hopefully identify children at risk of cyberbullying, addictive behaviours, or even exploitation and so enabling timely intervention to avoid adverse outcomes.”
The bombardment of stimuli via the Internet, and the resultant divided attention commonly experienced, presents a range of concerns, said Professor Jerome Sarris, from the Western Sydney University. “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,” Sarris said