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World Psychiatry. 2019 Jun;18(2):119-129. doi: 10.1002/wps.20617.

The "online brain": how the Internet may be changing our cognition.

Author information

1
NICM Health Research Institute, Western Sydney University, Westmead, Australia.
2
Division of Psychology and Mental Health, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK.
3
Centre for Youth Mental Health, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia.
4
Division of Digital Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA.
5
Department of Psychological Medicine, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King's College London, London, UK.
6
Physiotherapy Department, South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, London, UK.
7
Department of Zoology, Edward Grey Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.
8
Merton College, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.
9
Translational Health Research Institute, Western Sydney University, Penrith, NSW, Australia.
10
Cambridge Centre for Sport and Exercise Sciences, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK.
11
Orygen, The National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia.
12
School of Psychology, Australian Catholic University, Melbourne, Australia.
13
Department of Rehabilitation Sciences, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium.
14
University Psychiatric Center, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium.
15
NIHR Manchester Biomedical Research Centre, Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust, Manchester Academic Health Science Centre, Manchester, UK.
16
NIHR Greater Manchester Patient Safety Translational Research Centre, Manchester, UK.
17
Professorial Unit, The Melbourne Clinic, Department of Psychiatry, University of Melbourne, Australia.

Abstract

The impact of the Internet across multiple aspects of modern society is clear. However, the influence that it may have on our brain structure and functioning remains a central topic of investigation. Here we draw on recent psychological, psychiatric and neuroimaging findings to examine several key hypotheses on how the Internet may be changing our cognition. Specifically, we explore how unique features of the online world may be influencing: a) attentional capacities, as the constantly evolving stream of online information encourages our divided attention across multiple media sources, at the expense of sustained concentration; b) memory processes, as this vast and ubiquitous source of online information begins to shift the way we retrieve, store, and even value knowledge; and c) social cognition, as the ability for online social settings to resemble and evoke real-world social processes creates a new interplay between the Internet and our social lives, including our self-concepts and self-esteem. Overall, the available evidence indicates that the Internet can produce both acute and sustained alterations in each of these areas of cognition, which may be reflected in changes in the brain. However, an emerging priority for future research is to determine the effects of extensive online media usage on cognitive development in youth, and examine how this may differ from cognitive outcomes and brain impact of uses of Internet in the elderly. We conclude by proposing how Internet research could be integrated into broader research settings to study how this unprecedented new facet of society can affect our cognition and the brain across the life course.

KEYWORDS:

Internet; addiction; attention; cognition; memory; social media; social structures; virtual reality

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