The Online Brain: How the Internet Changes Our Cognition
Today, we scroll through hundreds of pieces of digital content a day, and for some people, thousands. The internet has changed the way we communicate, do business, socialize, learn – overall how we live as a society. When people perform an activity consistently and with intensity, the activity can cause behavioral and neurological changes in the brain. This phenomenon is called neuroplasticity, and is the ability for the brain to change in response to a repeated stimulus. Because people spend most of their time “online”, researchers wonder what effects internet use has on our brains. Specifically, in regards to cognition, researchers are concerned about the negative impacts of internet use and how that may lead to attention deficits, memory problems, and difficulty with in-person social interactions.
Internet Usage and Attention
A review by Firth et. al (2019) explored studies that examined how internet use impacted an individual’s attention, memory and knowledge, and social cognitive abilities. 95% of U.S. teens own a smartphone, with 45% of U.S. teens reporting that they are online a majority of their waking hours. Through this, Internet access has become ubiquitous and integrated into facets of modern life, including education, entertainment, communication, work, and socializing. However, this integration of the internet does not come without cost. For example, many people find themselves constantly checking their phones in search of updates, which disrupts their ability to focus on what is currently happening in their environment. 85% of U.S. teachers report having distracted students with the hypothesis that modern technology and the internet are the attention thieves to blame.
Impact on Cognitive Functioning
In the review, Firth et. al (2019) found three key impacts of internet use on cognitive functioning. One, heavy internet usage does cause physical changes in the brain. In studies of heavy internet users, researchers found that these users perform poorly on distraction attention tasks and have greater activity in the right prefrontal cortices. The right prefrontal cortices are responsible for maintaining concentration, thus researchers conclude that greater cognitive resources are utilized in heavy internet users to avoid distractions while they perform tasks. This greater exertion to avoid distractions leads to poor performance, as the brain may be pulling resources from other brain regions that should be utilized to facilitate success. More research is needed to identify and clarify physical changes in the brain caused by technology and internet use, but so far researchers have found detrimental effects of heavy internet use on brain activity.
Second, researchers have found that internet searches impact information acquisition and retention. The ventral stream, or the “what” stream of information processing, was found to be weaker during information acquisition that took place online. It was also found that adults who use the internet to search different tasks did not retain the information acquired from their internet searches. By relying on internet searches to acquire and access information, researchers suspect that necessary neurological processes responsible for information retention do not occur or are disrupted. Further studies have demonstrated that individuals may rely on the internet for information acquisition and access which causes individuals to become dependent on the internet for storing and utilizing information when needed.
Internet and Mental Health
Lastly, heavy internet use is associated with mental health problems. In regards to social cognition, people engage with others on the internet by following social media accounts, liking and sharing posts, and commenting on others’ content. These metrics have allowed for individuals to consistently compare themselves against other people and can lead to the development of self-esteem issues. For example, a social media user may experience low self-esteem when they feel a post or comment they have made online should have gotten substantially more attention than it actually did. For young people, body dysmorphia and feeling stressed by the need to achieve unrealistic expectations are common among internet users. Seeing and consuming different media trends across platforms can create confusion and sadness among young people as well. A causal relationship between internet use and mental health issues is difficult to establish due to a variety of other factors that impact mental health, but researchers are trying to better discern the contributions of internet use on mental health in order to make recommendations on healthy internet use.
In conclusion, heavy internet use does impact cognitive functioning. Heavy internet use has been associated with poor attention, reduced memory, and mental health problems. While the internet can be a resourceful tool, it is important to ensure that one is not spending much of their day “online”, including using social media and checking email. Ways people can limit internet use include creating a “bedtime” for smartphone use to end internet usage for the day, turning off notifications from apps and placing certain apps on “Do Not Disturb”, and even installing a timer on one’s device that will automatically stop their internet use after a certain period of time.
Firth, J., Torous, J., Stubbs, B., Firth, J. A., Steiner, G. Z., Smith, L., … & Sarris, J. (2019). The “online brain”: how the Internet may be changing our cognition. World Psychiatry, 18(2), 119-129.