Writing in World Psychiatry, an international team of researchers suggest that Internet use "can produce both acute and sustained" brain changes, specifically in areas associated with cognition. This means everything from memory recall to attention to sociability could be affected by our affinity for social media and Google search.
This might not sound like new news. There have been countless studies (not to mention many think pieces) lamenting the Internet and how it is turning us into a horde of unsociable, distracted zombies (and others that suggest it is not such a bad thing.) But in this large review, the authors considered various leading hypotheses on how the Internet may be impacting certain cognitive processes, examining findings from psychological, psychiatric, and neuroimaging research to see if they support the claims.
"The key findings of this report are that high-levels of Internet use could indeed impact on many functions of the brain," Joseph Firth, senior research fellow at NICM Health Research Institute, Western Sydney University and honorary research fellow at The University of Manchester, said in a statement. "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."
This is supported by a 2016 study that found younger people who indulge in more media multitasking behavior require more cognitive effort to maintain focus when tempted by a distracting stimulus. Meanwhile, high levels of Internet use and media multitasking have been linked to decreased grey matter in the prefrontal regions associated with concentration.
But it's not just a problem concentrating – the study authors also noted that the available evidence suggests the Internet could be affecting memory and sociability, even if the extent of this isn't fully understood.
"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 Frith.
He added: "It's clear the Internet has drastically altered the opportunity for social interactions, and the contexts within which social relationships can take place."
It's not all damming stuff. The study authors also suggest ways to minimize some of the Internet's more harmful elements. These include mindfulness exercises and something senior author Jerome Sarris, deputy director and director of research at NICM Health Research Institute, Western Sydney University, calls "Internet hygiene" techniques.
"To minimize 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 Sarris.