June 18th, 2019

To Your Health: Heavy internet use may be impacting brain function

By Gillian Slade on June 10, 2019.

Frequent and easy online access may be convenient but researchers are warning that it could be affecting the structure and function of the brain.

The main concerns are about how our memory is processing information. Our attention span may be affected because of the constant stream of information is affecting our ability to concentrate on a task. It could also be affecting our ability to interact socially.

This report by researchers at Western Sydney University, Harvard, Oxford and the University of Manchester was published in World Psychiatry.

“The key findings of this report are that high-levels of Internet use could indeed impact on many functions of the brain. 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 Dr Joseph Firth senior research fellow at NICM Health Research Institute, Western Sydney University.

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 researchers who looked at data from psychological, psychiatric and neuro imaging research also found most of the research so far has looked at the effects of the Internet on adults. They believe more needs to be done to determine how young children are affected.

Guidelines from the World Health Organization in 2018 recommended that children between the ages of two and five should be limited to screen time of an hour or less each day.

If you have a young child this may already be proving difficult to monitor. 

Firth says this does not have to be difficult if we ensure children are not missing out on other developmental activities such as social interaction and physical activity.

Prof. Jerome Sarris, Western Sydney University, senior author of the report, is concerned about the potential impact on the brain of increasing Internet use.

It is the “bombardment of stimuli” from the Internet and consequently the divided attention that concerns Saris.

“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,” said Sarris.

He suggests reducing online multitasking, ritualistic ‘checking’ behaviours, reducing online activity during the evening and making an effort to have more personal interaction with people. 

Oxford research fellow and study co-author, Dr Josh Firth says it’s clear the Internet has drastically changed our social interactions and it now crucial that we understand the “potential for the online world to actually alter our social functioning, and determine which aspects of our social behaviour will change, and which won’t”.

The research paper can be accessed in the June issue of World Psychiatry online at onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/wps.20617

Here’s to the importance of social interaction and limiting our time online and here’s To Your Health.

To Your Health is a weekly column by Gillian Slade, health reporter for the News, bringing you news on health issues and research from around the world. You can reach her at gslade@medicinehatnews.com or 403-528-8635.

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