The internet is changing how we live, work, shop and interact with each other. There are many positive aspects to this. But it also comes with drawbacks.

In the first major review of the way the internet affects the brain, the researchers found that online activity lowers attention span, worsens memory and even changes the brain’s structure.

Lowers Concentration

An international team working in the field of mental health has just concluded that the internet can produce “acute and sustained alterations” in attention, memory and social interactions “which may be reflected in changes in the brain.”

If you watch Netflix on your laptop while switching between Instagram and Facebook on your smartphone, answering an email, and listening to music all at the same time, you might think you’re demonstrating great dexterity.

But the researchers found the ability to carry out multiple tasks online wasn’t reflected in improvements offline, “and, in fact” they wrote, “seems to decrease this cognitive capacity through reducing our ability to ignore distractions.”

As Joseph Firth, senior research fellow at Western Sydney University, Australia, and one of the study authors explains, “[T]he 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.”

Using functional MRI imaging, scientists have been able to see changes in brain activity in those who engage in a great deal of media multitasking when compared with those who don’t.

Coupled with that are significant reductions in grey matter in a region linked to impulse control, focus and decision making. (Translation:  Your brain actually shrinks in the regions devoted to those functions.)

Loss of Long-Term Memory

In terms of memory, the internet reduces our need to learn new information and store it in our heads. We can access it all in a gigantic “external memory” online that contains nearly all the information in the world.

In theory this could free up the brain to focus on more challenging tasks, but, as Dr. Firth cautions, “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.”

Internet use is also associated with changes in brain structure that cause a reduction in our ability to store information long term.

As far as social interaction is concerned, they had some good news for a change – at least for older people who feel isolated. For them it can be a valuable resource and provide some positive stimulation.

However, young people may be susceptible to peer pressure and feelings of rejection, although no causal link between internet use and poor mental health was found.

Commenting on this, Dr. Firth said, “It’s clear the internet has drastically altered the opportunity for social interactions, and the contexts within which social relationships can take place.

“So it’s now critical to understand the potential for the online world to actually alter our social functioning, and determine which aspects of our social behavior will change, and which won’t.”

Strategies to Reduce its Harmful Effects

Dr. Firth was concerned that we are observing the effects of a massive experiment on ourselves without assessing the results, even though the internet is emerging as an important factor in brain function — particularly if it leads people to devote less time to sleep and physical activity.

His colleague and fellow author Jerome Sarris was equally concerned, saying, “The bombardment of stimuli via the internet, and the resultant divided attention commonly experienced, presents a range of concerns.

“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 mitigate the harmful effects of the internet, Prof. Sarris advises mindfulness, a reduced level of online multitasking, overcoming the habit of compulsively checking social media, spending less time online in the evenings, and actually spending more time with real, physically present people.