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Research: Time online may be changing our brains

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Using the internet for social media, browsing and entertainment may change our brain’s structure, function and cognitive development, according to a new study.

A team from the University of Manchester, Western Sydney University, Harvard University and Kings College, Oxford University says the constant stream of prompts and notifications online may decrease our capacity for maintaining concentration on a single task.

It also reports that the internet may also impact on attention span, memory processes and social interactions.

In the first review of its kind, researchers investigated leading hypotheses on how the Internet may alter cognitive processes. They then examined how these were supported by recent findings from psychological, psychiatric and neuroimaging research.

The report, published in World Psychiatry, then combined the evidence to produce revised models on how the Internet could affect the brain.

“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.

“Additionally, the online world now presents us with a uniquely large and constantly-accessible resource for facts and information, which is never more than a few taps and swipes away.

“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.”

Much of the research concentrated on adult brains and the report pointed out that more studies were required to determine the benefits and drawbacks of internet use for young people.

“The bombardment of stimuli via the Internet, and the resultant divided attention commonly experienced, presents a range of concerns,” added Professor Jerome Sarris, Deputy Director and Director of Research at NICM Health Research Institute.

“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.

“To minimise 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).”

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