Complex Made Simple

Online all the time: You have no idea how destructive or beneficial this is

Online all the time: You have no idea how destructive and beneficial this is

I once saw a picture of a very ornate art museum where only a couple of visitors were deep in thought looking at the paintings.

There was nothing wrong in that picture, no pun intended, not until I saw a group of high school students, likely part of an Art Class, each transfixed on their smartphones, a giddy smile on their faces.

And then it hit me. Rich culture and expensive works of art were no match to scatter-brain material online.

The tech is a big part of our lives and its impact often goes unnoticed.

Infographic by Statista.com

Is this a problem spiralling out of control?

As of 2017, there was an estimated 3.9 billion Internet users worldwide. This accounts for more than half of the global population, with China having the biggest online population at 829 million users, followed by India at 560 million and the United States at 293 million

An extensive report, led by Dr Joseph Firth, Senior Research Fellow at NICM Health Research Institute, produced revised models on how the Internet could affect the brain’s structure, function and cognitive development.

“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,” said Dr Firth.

“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.”

The World Health Organization’s 2018 guidelines recommends that young children (aged 2-5) should be exposed to one hour per day, or less, of screen time.  

Processor Jerome Sarris, Deputy Director and Director of Research at NICM Health Research Institute, Western Sydney University and senior author on the report, said: “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.

He recommends we use ‘Internet hygiene’ techniques to reduce online multitasking, ritualistic ‘checking’ behaviours, and evening online activity, while engaging in more in-person interactions.

An indispensible tool

We use the internet in business to generate ideas, conduct research and remotely manage people and processes. We use it to sell, buy and file taxes.

We don’t have to remember phone numbers, addresses or actors’ names anymore. According to a study by Science Magazine, “the Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.”

Our memory cells and nervous system are basically on vacation lacking stimuli, while Google is hard at work.   

Wikipedia and millions of documents are a click away, so who needs an encyclopedia or to go to a library’s history archives to do research.

In an article for The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr relates his growing difficulty in deep reading. “Our time online is often spent scanning headlines and posts and quickly surfing links, never spending much time on any one thing. So of course, when it comes to reading more than a few minutes, or even moments, of information, your mind will often begin to wander.  

You can take a break from the net, but it won’t let you go

An accumulation of Dopamine in our brains makes abandoning our online addiction a very hard thing to do. Soon after we stretch our legs, we need that fix again.