Scientist say they have no idea, but they don’t like it
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
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.
The researchers first looked at digital multitasking. Evidence showed that doing multiple things
online did not improve people's' ability to multitask elsewhere. In fact, they argued that 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 divided attention — which then, in turn, may decrease our capacity for
maintaining concentration on a single task," explains Joseph Firth, the 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 behavior 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. 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.
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 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.
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