Is the Internet Destroying Our Brains?


In this blog we have looked at the arguments around the impact that the internet is having on the way that we think. Concerns have been expressed historically that technologies will have a negative impact – including that the printing press would inhibit our ability to think and that radio and television would reduce our ability to think critically because we would be reading less.

Arguments about the internet have usually focussed on two areas. First, that the behaviours adopted when using the internet (especially surfing quickly from one page and topic to another), would limit the ability to concentrate and think deeply – qualities gained when reading books, the argument went. Nicholas Carr is a leading exponent of this theory, along with others, who said that the internet would make people less intelligent.

The second area of concern was that information technology would make people more violent, based on their exposure to violence in video games. Supporters of this argument tried to associate violent video games with spree murder events such as Columbine and their efforts led to legislative efforts to limit access to the games.

Previous posts in this  blog reviewed the arguments that had been presented in support of both of these arguments and concluded that in both cases evidence that information technology was causing the effects argued (that we were becoming more stupid and violent) was very weak and did not logically lead to the conclusions that were reached.

Over the past few years this debate has continued though, with frequent public discussion of the impact that the internet is having on our brains. A wide range of areas are now cited as negative impacts of internet use and includes:

  • The internet is causing people to become autistic
  • There is now physical internet addiction. Some argue that heavy internet use can result in addiction symptons that are similar to those experienced by gamblers and alcoholics.
  • People are more withdrawn and/or narcissistic
  • We have reduced empathy due to video games – we become numbed to the meaningless violence.
  • Our attention span has been reduced as we engage in surfing behaviour
  • More people have low self esteem
  • Our memory is becoming weaker as we become more reliant on externally available information and less focussed on remembering things.
  • Learning is impacted – education does not use rote learning as much
  • Our research skills are weaker – we can just Google a question
  • Our concentration is weaker
  • We are focused more on new information rather than understanding existing knowledge
  • Creative thinking is impaired
  • People are becoming lonely and jealous
  • The internet is a suicide risk

This list is not exhaustive but illustrates the wide range of ills that are being attributed to the internet today. Others argue that the evidence that supports these assertions is weak or non existent and does not justify the case that has been made for them.

Susan Greenfield is a leading advocate of the risks to our brains that have been associated with the internet. An Oxford academic, Greenfield has provided a coherent framework for many of the claims that are in the list above. Her case is based on neuroscience and states that internet use affects the way that our brains are wired – how the connections within our brain take place and which then influence the way that we think. In the following video, Susan presents her research:

Greenfields arguments have received much attention, have encouraged parents to exercise caution in the guidance provided to children on the internet and have raised serious questions about the impact that these brain changes may have on society. If peoples’ brains are changing in the way that Greenfield suggests then the implications for society may be profound. We might expect an overall reduced ability to think and hence poorer decision making at all levels of society, for example.

Support for Greenfields’ arguments is not unanimous though. many have argued that the case that she presents is weak, unsupported by solid evidence and resulting in unnecessary alarm. While not arguing that unlimited internet use is desirable (there are many non brain related reasons why we shouldn’t spend excessive time online – like physical fitness and the development of our social skills) it is suggested that there also may be many positive benefits of internet use:

  • It may counter aging
  • Improves decision making
  • Better complex reasoning
  • People are becoming more adaptive to change
  • Improved academic performance
  • Improves multitasking
  • Better visual acuity
  • Better at finding information

The arguments against Susan Greenberg are articulated by the Economist and by professors at the University of Melbourne as well as others. Kathryn Mills, from University College London presents a summary of her arguments against Greenfield from a neuroscience perspective – significant as Greenfield bases her case on this area. Kathryn’s presentation here considers the development of the brain in adolescence:

This post has reviewed the arguments on the impact that information technology is having on peoples’ brains. We have seen that some argue that there is a negative impact from technology that may have a damaging impact on people and society. Others argue that the evidence to support this case is weak and that there are substantial societal benefits of internet use.

 

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