What the Internet is Doing to Young Minds

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87% of US teachers think the internet is creating a distracted generation. Is it really true?

There’s no evidence that typical levels of internet use harms adolescent brains, according to a new review of 134 studies.

On the contrary, the report, to be published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science, finds some positives associated with normal internet use (Mills, 2014).

Many of the scare stories about the effects of the internet on the brain are based on studies of those using it excessively, which only affects around 5% of adolescents.

The perception that internet use is eroding young people’s attention spans certainly exists:

“Of the 2462 American middle- and high-school teachers surveyed by the Pew Research Center, 87% felt that widespread Internet use was creating an ‘easily distracted generation with short attention spans’ and 88% felt that ‘today’s students have fundamentally different cognitive skills because of the digital technologies they have grown up with’.” (Mills, 2014)

There is, however, no consistent, hard evidence of any damaging effects of the internet on the cognitive powers of young people, or other aspects of their development.

In fact, this review points to some of the benefits of using the internet. For example, studies have found:

  • Higher internet use amongst 14-24 year-olds has been linked to greater participation in real-world activities like clubs and sports.
  • Communicating with friends through the internet has been shown to improve the social connectedness of adolescents.
  • Being part of a highly connected network can help people solve problems.

As for ‘internet addiction’, here’s what I have to say about that: Does Internet Use Lead to Addiction, Loneliness, Depression…and Syphilis?

Mills concludes her article:

“In the 25 years since the World Wide Web was invented, our way of interacting with each other and our collective history has changed.

Successfully navigating this new world is likely to require new skills, which will be reflected in our neural architecture on some level.

However, there is currently no evidence to suggest that Internet use has or has not had a profound effect on brain development.”

The real answer to what the internet is doing to our brains is: it depends on what we’re doing with the internet.

Here’s how I put it in a recent article, which focused on Facebook:

“Consider Facebook for a moment.

There are all kinds of things you can do: stalk old partners, play games, find fascinating content, keep in touch with old friends or look at random pictures of other people’s drunken nights out (not all of these are recommendations).

People’s creativity in using online services streaks way ahead of our knowledge of what it means and how it affects us.

In fact, we’re only just starting to see studies that make more fine-grained distinctions about what people are actually doing online and how that may, or may not, be good for them.”

Finally, it’s worth remembering that — as Mills says — finding little evidence is different from finding that there is no effect; rather it means that more research needs to be carried out into typical levels of internet use.

Image credit: Spaceman photography

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 25 May 2014

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