How does the internet affect brain function?
Recent research suggests that excess use of the internet over prolonged periods of time may negatively affect some cognitive functions, particularly attention and short-term memory.
Since using the internet often involves our ability to multi-task between different settings—and somehow trains our brains to quickly shift focus to the stream of pop-ups, prompts, and notifications—this may, in fact, interfere with our ability to maintain focus on a particular cognitive task for extended times.
In other words, our ability to perform our daily activities involves a combination between our ability to multi-task and shift attention between different tasks, and our ability to maintain attention on a particular topic.
While digital multi-tasking may be a good practice for shifting focus, it may also weaken our ability to maintain focus on one area for an extended period of time. So it may make us more easily distractible because it reduces our ability to ignore distractions.
In addition to its negative effects on cognition, excess internet use has been associated with a higher risk for depression and anxiety, and can make us feel isolated and/or overwhelmed.
How can we lessen these negative impacts our brains?
There aren’t any clinical guidelines that clearly describe what may constitute “acceptable” vs. “excess” use of the internet, as this is a new area in research that remains under-investigated. However, I suggest trying to:
- Limit the time you spend on the internet. During your working and non-working hours, schedule specific times to use the internet (unless your job directly involves use of the internet or you have an important deadline.)
- Set aside a certain time of the day when you check your email inbox. After work, schedule your internet time at home so that you can spend more time with your family and friends. While I was in the habit of having my email open throughout the time I was in the office, I’ve learned to only check it at scheduled times of the day so that I can focus on other things that also need my attention.
- Make sure your use of the internet isn’t taking time away from your family. Perhaps time you’re spending scrolling through websites, social media and email could be better spent in other healthy endeavors, such as physical activity, socializing or reading a book. These are all activities that are important for your brain health.
How can we avoid email overload?
As you consider how you’d like to embark on a “digital detox,” don’t forget about the dreaded “email overload.” While email is an essential work tool that we simply can’t avoid, there are certain things we can do to help deal with this problem:
- Acknowledge the fact that not every email has to be addressed immediately. While some issues are urgent, others may be less urgent. Try to “triage” your inbox so that important and urgent messages are addressed right away, and others can be addressed later, according to their urgency.
- “Snooze” your sent messages so that they’re delivered at specific times. That way, you can ensure your coworkers get the non-urgent email you typed late at night or over the weekend during their work hours.
- Disable unnecessary notifications. It can be very distracting to be alerted each and every time an email arrives in your inbox.
- Unsubscribe from any unnecessary newsletters that you no longer need. This will help reduce the “clutter” in your inbox and allow to focus on other things that matter.
- Avoid discussing major issues or topics by email unless absolutely necessary. Some issues are better handled in face-to-face meetings.
Who is the most at risk and why?
Excess internet use, and even “internet addiction,” is a common and probably under-diagnosed condition which affects people across different levels of educations, employment and socioeconomic status. While we may be prone to think this is more common in young unemployed teenagers, studies suggest that highly educated and employed young to middle-aged adults in highly demanding professions represent a major portion of affected people.
Why is this digital overexposure potentially dangerous?
If left untreated, this digital overexposure can have negative effects on our social life and our cognitive and mental health. It can isolate us from our family and friends, increase risk for “burn-out,” and take away from the time we have for other meaningful and enjoyable things in life.
With increased awareness, we’ll become better at recognizing and treating it in the early stages. The internet is a double-edged sword. When used reasonably, it can increase our productivity and keep us connected. However, in excess, it can make us less happy and less efficient.
Rawan Tarawneh is a neurologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.