January 22, 2021

Study Reveals What The Internet Does To The Brain

The downside of too much internet.

The internet has become an integral part of everyday life for many. The way we shop, eat, travel, connect, and, most importantly, learn has evolved. We're constantly exposed to new ways of living and thinking, all with a single click or tap of a screen.
Though the world wide web is a gift to humanity, several studies have identified some possible downsides to its use. After years of researching the psychological effects of internet use, scientists' concerns about its physical impact on the brain have grown.
scans of the brain

Internet use may affect brain function and development. Photo Credit.

A study published in Human Brain Mapping, for instance, looked at the effects of internet use in children and adolescents aged 5 to 18 years in Japan. The researchers collected several pieces of information, including how often the study subjects used the internet. Though most of the subjects reported that they rarely used the internet or didn't use it daily, the researchers still saw changes in the brain they attribute to internet use.

Over time the parts of the brain involved with language, attention, memory, and executive function had less growth.

Overall, the brain scans indicated that over time, the parts of the brain involved with language, attention, memory, and executive function - which help us plan, organize, and multitask - had less growth. They also saw a link between frequent internet use and decreased verbal intelligence.
There's no clear explanation why the regular use of the internet affects the brain this way, but the study's authors have a hunch. When we're surfing the net, certain areas of the brain - like the areas involved in language, attention, memory, and executive function - aren't being used and exercised as much. The brain isn't a muscle, but it acts like one in the sense that it needs to be used for it to grow and develop.

The brain isn't a muscle, but it acts like one in the sense that it needs to be used for it to grow and develop.

Another finding in the study was the toll that internet use had on areas of the brain involved with emotion and reward. Again, the authors aren't quite sure what this means long-term, but damage to these areas has shown to cause conditions like depression and impulsivity.
World Health Organization Vitamin D

In 2018, nine-in-ten American adults were using the internet - Pew Research Center

Addicted to the Internet

The research community continues to be intrigued by the ubiquitous use of the internet. Along with ongoing studies in this field, mental health professionals are beginning to question whether excessive internet use should be characterized as a mental disorder - with some referring to it as at-risk/problematic internet use (ARPIU). As of now, there is no such diagnosis or guidelines for how to diagnose it. Some, however, consult the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which states the following to be the symptoms for internet gaming disorder:
  • Preoccupation with gaming
  • Withdrawal symptoms when gaming is taken away or not possible (sadness, anxiety, irritability)
  • Tolerance, the need to spend more time gaming to satisfy the urge
  • Inability to reduce playing, unsuccessful attempts to quit gaming
  • Giving up other activities, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities due to gaming
  • Continuing to game despite problems
  • Deceiving family members or others about the amount of time spent on gaming
  • The use of gaming to relieve negative moods, such as guilt or hopelessness
  • Risk, having jeopardized or lost a job or relationship due to gaming
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