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What Do We Really Know About How the Internet Affects a Growing Brain?

Less than we’d like, but the evidence we do have is promising.

It’s easy to take the “back in my day” approach to the value of the Internet and of social media. The ability to google anything is apparently turning our adolescents into mindless querying machines; the unending stream of updates and notifications is changing young brains for the worse. But these are statements we can test. When psychologists and neuroscientists look at how Internet use affects adolescent brains, what they have found isn’t even close to the brain drain blame game it’s fashionable to play. They’ve been finding just the opposite.

University College London PhD student Kathryn L. Mills summarizes what we know so far in an August commentary for Trends in Cognitive Sciences. First of all, Mills frames the problem at hand. According to a survey of middle-school and high-school teachers by the Pew Researcher Center, a majority teachers believed that Internet use had contributed to more easily distracted students and that their students had “fundamentally different cognitive skills because of the digital technologies they have grown up with” (87 and 88 percent respectively).

What’s not in question is that adolescence is a critical time for brain development. Connections are being made and are pruned away with experience. During these early years, a young brain sculpts the neuronal clay it has to best make sense of the world around it. If there was ever a time for Internet use to “re-wire” kids’ brains, adolescence would be a perfect time to do so.

So what does the most recent research on the subject tell us? As Mills points out, a “re-wiring” of the brain is very unlikely. When we look at how adolescents’ brains change across time in MRI scans, for example, we find that genetics, and not environmental effects like Internet use, is what directs brain restructuring during this important time. And if a full re-wiring of the brain is unlikely, what about more subtle changes, like how teens interact with each other? “Current evidence suggests that typical Internet activities do not impair social development during adolescence,” Mills summarizes.

Recent studies even highlight some positive aspects of adolescent Internet use. Mills cites three studies which show a positive relationship between Internet use and participation in “real world” activities like sports, no connection between screen-based activities and less participation in physical activities, and a positive relationship between Internet use and social connectedness between friends.

Where do ideas about brain-destroying screen time come from then? According to Mills, there just isn’t that much research into how Internet use affects young brains to draw strong conclusions from. What we do know seems to be either benign or slightly positive. But what gets picked up by the media and shared around are the studies that don’t represent typical adolescent Internet users. For example, some studies have raised concerns about changes to a young brain from heavy Internet use, but these focus on the less than 5 percent of users who are classified as “excessive” or even “addicted” users. While important, focusing on studies of the extreme gives a one-dimensional look at a very nuanced issue. Mills acknowledges this, concluding, “There is currently no evidence to suggest that Internet use has or has not had a profound effect on brain development.”

If Internet use really was making adolescents less social, less knowledgeable, and less active, we should start seeing that in the studies to come. That’s not to say that we won’t, but the evidence that we have so far is pointing towards a much more detailed discussion than “the Internet ruins kids’ brains…everybody panic.” And even if the Internet did fundamentally change a young brain for the worse, Mills explains that all would not be lost. “Even if Internet use is impacting the developing brain during adolescence, we must not forget that the brains of adults remain capable of functional change.”

We shouldn’t let Candy Crush and Snapchat obscure the value of the largest and most accessible repository of human knowledge in history before we swipe the Internet’s value to the left.

Kyle Hill is the Chief Science Officer of the Nerdist enterprise. Follow the continued geekery on Twitter @Sci_Phile.

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