The internet may be rewiring the human brain, according to new research.
It is changing the way we pay attention, remember things and interact with other people, say scientists.
An international team pooled psychological, psychiatric and neuroimaging data to identify potential alterations in specific areas.
This produced the most detailed models of its kind on how computers are affecting the structure, function and cognitive development of grey matter.
Leader author Dr Joseph Firth, a psychiatrist at Western Sydney University, said: “The key findings of this report are high-levels of Internet use could indeed impact on many functions of the brain.
“For example, the 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.
“Additionally, the online world now presents us with a uniquely large and constantly-accessible resource for facts and information, which is never more than a few taps and swipes away.
“Given we now have most of the world’s factual information literally at our fingertips, 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.”
Working with colleagues in the US and Britain, he also found the vast majority of studies have been conducted in adults.
More are needed to determine the benefits and drawbacks of Internet use in young people, say the researchers.
The widespread adoption of online technologies, along with social media, is of concern to teachers and parents.
Guidelines issued by the World Health Organisation last year recommended two to five year olds should be exposed to a maximum of one hour screen time per day.
Dr Firth said avoiding the potential negative effects could be as simple as ensuring youngsters are not missing out on normal social interaction and exercise, by spending too much time on digital devices.
He said: “To help with this, there are also now a multitude of apps and software programs available for restricting Internet usage and access on smartphones and computers – which parents and carers can use to place some ‘family-friendly’ rules around both the time spent on personal devices, and also the types of content engaged with.
“Alongside this, speaking to children often about how their online lives affect them is also important – to hopefully identify children at risk of cyberbullying, addictive behaviours, or even exploitation – and so enabling timely intervention to avoid adverse outcomes.”
The team – which included experts at Kings College London, Oxford University and University of Manchester – say some of the impacts of increasing Internet use on the brain are worrying.
Senior author Prof Jerome Sarris, also of Western Sydney University, said: “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 minimise the potential adverse effects of high-intensity multi-tasking Internet usage, I would suggest mindfulness and focus practice, along with use of ‘Internet hygiene’ techniques (e.g. reducing online multitasking, ritualistic ‘checking’ behaviours, and evening online activity, while engaging in more in-person interactions).”
Co-author Dr John Torous, of Harvard Medical School, Boston, added: “The findings from this paper highlight how much more we have to learn about the impact of our digital world on mental health and brain health.
“There are certainly new potential benefits for some aspects of health, but we need to balance them against potential risks.”
Co-author Dr Josh Firth, a researcyh fellow at Oxford, added: “It is clear the Internet has drastically altered the opportunity for social interactions, and the contexts within which social relationships can take place.
“So, it is now critical to understand the potential for the online world to actually alter our social functioning, and determine which aspects of our social behaviour will change, and which won’t.”
The study is published in World Psychiatry.