Could our dependence on the internet negatively affect our brains?

By Sanya Saxena


In today’s world, the internet has become a part of each and every one of us. We spend most of the day using it whether it be to watch a movie, look at social media, or complete a homework assignment. But what if this continuous use of the internet is changing the way our brains work? Recently, studies have found that the internet may actually be able to alter our cognitive processes, which can then reflect changes in our brains, affecting our attentional capacities, memory processes, and emotional behavior.

Nowadays, The average attention span is only five minutes. Ten years ago, it used to be 12 minutes. How can our attention span be less than half of what it used to be? What’s changed? The answer is… the internet. It is believed that due to the limitless streaming of prompts and notifications that comes from being on the Internet, our attention is constantly divided, and over time our ability to maintain concentration on one task can significantly decrease. Over the years, scientists have started to call this behavioral pattern ‘Media multitasking.’ This pattern of behavior has only become more prevalent in the modern world as we see more people simultaneously accessing multiple forms of content on their phones and laptops, instead of focusing on completing one task at a time. In fact, a meta‐analysis of 41 studies showed that engaging in multitasking was associated with significantly poorer overall cognitive performance, with a moderate‐to‐large effect. This has been confirmed by more recent studies, further showing that even short‐term engagement with an extensively hyperlinked online environment, like online shopping for 15 minutes, reduces attentional scope for a sustained duration after coming offline, whereas reading a magazine does not show any such impact. As we begin to see younger kids, with smartphones and tablets in their hands, we begin to wonder whether the use of the internet at such a young age could be detrimental to cognitive development. In fact, there has been some speculation that an increase in disorders such as ADHD (Attention-deficit | hyperactivity disorder)among the youth could be due to growth in internet usage. In fact, a new study published Aug. 31 finds ADHD found that diagnoses in children between the ages of 4 and 17 increased from 6.1% in 1997-1998 to 10.2% in 2015-2016. So what can we do to combat the adverse effects that constant media multitasking may have on our brains? Professor Jerome Sarris, Deputy Director and Director of Research at NICM Health Research Institute, suggests that people practice things like mindfulness to help increase focus, while also limiting screen time by trying to stay off the internet before going to bed and engaging in more in-person social activities.


These days, we don’t memorize anything – we search. How many conversations have you had that involved someone looking up something on their phone? The internet has provided us with a way to obtain all the information we need simply with the click of a button, and while this may seem like a good thing, there might be more to it than what meets the eye? Due to the fact that the internet is heavily relied on by most people for collecting and storing data, it is possible that our ability to store information in our brains may be reducing. Searching things on the internet has become a shortcut for people that allows them to remember less knowledge and get away with it. A professor of psychology from Harvard university named Daniel Wegner, claims that the internet has become part of a transactive memory source, a way in which our brains can compartmentalize information. Transactive memory can exist in many ways, an example would be you asking your mom to remember you have a homework assignment due on Friday. The internet, in a way, has become like an extension of our own memories. It remains inconclusive as to whether this dependence could necessarily affect our memories in a negative manner, Some people even believe that the situation overall is beneficial likening our dependence on computers to dependence on a prosthetic hand, or to the use of calculators in school. However, some have said that relying on the internet for all of our information could possibly inhibit learning. When we frequently use the Internet instead of our own storehouse, we are mindlessly consuming data. We pull sporadically from sources, which, in turn, sporadically activates the brain. We then don’t get the opportunity to process this information in a rich and meaningful way, creating fewer connections between our other memories. The information does not stick. We are unlikely to remember it for very long. The internet has definitely become a great way to obtain information more quickly, but it isn’t necessarily the best way to try and learn and retain knowledge for long periods of time.

Our mental health is just as important as our physical health and maintaining it should be a priority. In the modern age, anxiety and depression among the youth have rapidly increased. Why is this the case? Many theories have been formulated over the years that blame the rapid amount of time adolescents spend online. In fact, people who spend more than 38 hours a week online are believed to have an ‘internet addiction’ and while this may not seem dangerous or worrying, this addiction is as damaging to a person as is an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Excessive Internet usage can create psychological, social, school, and/or work difficulties in a person's life. They may become more detached from society and remain in isolation. An Iranian research found that excessive Internet users usually feel less responsibility toward society and their environment, and so tend to remain by themselves. They usually feel unsuccessful in their education and work, and they have less social support and low self-esteem. Social media has been shown to be the root cause for rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers. When we use social media, we are looking for affirmation, and consciously or not, we are comparing our life to the lives of others. As a result, we feel like our own lives are inadequate and this makes us feel like we’re not good enough. Dr. Brian Primack, a professor of public health at the University of Arkansas, conducted a study to observe whether social media and depression were correlated. According to his study, depression risk rose in tandem with time spent on social media. Compared with the lightest users (2 hours or less per day), the heaviest users (at least 5 hours per day) had a three times higher depression risk. Meanwhile, that risk was two times higher among young adults who were active on social media around 3.5 to 5 hours per day. So, while the internet and social media may be a good way to use up your time and stay in touch with people, remember to take breaks from these things and focus on keeping your mental health in check.


To conclude, the internet seems to have made a huge impact on our daily lives, and not just in the ways we would expect. I believe that we should try and understand the internet’s impact on the human brain in order to protect ourselves from some of the potentially harmful effects that could come out of excessive internet usage.


References

Contributors, P. (2019, April 4). How the Internet affects your mental health. Piedmont Healthcare. Retrieved March 21, 2021, from https://www.piedmont.org/living-better/how-the-internet-affects-your-mental-health

Firth, J. (2019, June 11). Frequent internet use affects brain functioning. The Healio. Retrieved March 19, 2021, from https://www.healio.com/news/psychiatry/20190611/frequent-internet-use-affects-brain-functioning

How declining attention spans impact your social media. (2020, June 14). Muck Rack. Retrieved March 19, 2021, from https://muckrack.com/blog/2020/07/14/how-declining-attention-spans-impact-your-social-media#:~:text=The%20internet%20is%20physically%20influencing%20our%20brains&text=For%20instance%2C%20the%20limitless%20prompts,maintain%20concentration%20on%20single%20tasks.

Plumridge, N. (2020, January 3). Is the internet destroying our attention span? Psych Minds. Retrieved March 19, 2021, from https://psychminds.com/is-the-internet-destroying-our-attentions-span/

Resnick, B. (2019, May 3). Yes, the internet is destroying our collective attention span. Vox. Retrieved March 20, 2021, from https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2019/5/3/18514330/distraction-collective-attention-research