How the internet and social media have changed the way our minds work

  • 21 September 2021 (5 min read)

The internet was adopted faster than any major technology in human history. Every day, it is estimated1 that 4.66 billion people access the web (93% from mobile devices) for a variety of uses such as working, shopping, and socializing. In developed countries, a significant share of the population is continuously connected to a network that barely existed 30 years ago. It was a revolution not only for the economy and society, but also for our brains.

In fact, the digitalization that has occurred in our lives is even changing humans’ cognitive processes, particularly for the “digital natives” of Generation Z, according to a recent study.2

Having analyzed dozens of scientific and medical studies, the panel of experts agreed that the internet is creating new mechanisms focused on how our brains work. And it couldn’t be any other way: the brain is a dynamic, adaptable organ whose neural architecture is sensitive to external stimuli. Our cognitive processes are therefore adapting to the “new normal” in the way we seek information, work and socialize, triggered by the internet revolution. Three areas in particular are affected: attention, memory and social interactions, each associated with self-esteem and self-representation. Let’s delve deeper.

1. It’s harder to focus

Every day, the internet sucks up a huge amount of our attention, especially for people who are always online. And it does so relentlessly, in our hyper-connected, multi-tasking ways, as we quickly but incessantly check our smartphones for all kinds of information (from work to news and social media interactions). These are compulsive behaviors which, according to scientific literature, have led to a slowdown in our cognitive capacity, especially when sustained concentration is required.

Our brains just can’t ignore the constant barrage of distractions on screen, according to the research. The phenomenon shouldn’t be underestimated, especially in children and teens, who are at a crucial stage of growth and development of their cognitive abilities. Not to mention that “compulsive smartphone addiction” can also cause indirect harm, such as by reducing sleep time or taking away valuable time from socializing and creative thinking.

2. The internet as “external memory”

For the first time in history, thanks to the internet, people have immediate access to the information they need. It’s all on your smartphone: just ask and you’ll be flooded with answers. Alongside the undeniable benefits, this digital “new normal” – unheard of in the old analogue world – brings with it other changes to our brains. Especially in terms of semantic memory, pertaining to facts.

Indeed, the scientific research is unanimous in defining the internet as one giant “external memory”, or, as scholars call it, a “transactive memory”. This is nothing new. Transactive memory has existed for millennia in human history: this is how memory is entrusted to the family, community or society at large in order to pass it on through the generations. But the internet represents a new type of transactive memory, because it stores all the exact information: so there’s no need for people or society to make the effort to remember facts precisely, since they can be found instantaneously at any moment. In this way, the web has basically made the traditional means of preserving memory – such as family, community and encyclopedias – redundant, if not useless.

It’s easy to see the consequences of this. In one experiment, some subjects were asked to find information in an old encyclopedia and others to search online. The result: those who searched online found what they were looking for faster than the others but had more difficulty in accurately remembering the knowledge they had gathered. But that’s not all. According to other studies, dependence on the internet to get information has led to confusing a person’s own memory skills with those of their smartphone. Individuals increasingly connected to their devices end up feeling them as an extension of themselves, which will only become more prevalent with the emergence of wearable virtual- or augmented-reality technologies.

3. New digital social interactions

Social relations have always played a major role in human well-being, happiness and even living a long life. It’s been scientifically established that each individual has about 150 friendships, divided into five different degrees of depth: from partner to best friend to acquaintance. In the last decade, the rise of social networks has led to a dramatic increase in the number of “friends”, at least those online. Those countless “friendships” on Facebook or Instagram are often far more superficial than those in real life.

The dialectic between offline and online friendships involves a delicate balance: it’s a bit like playing the same game, experts explain, but on a radically different field. Let’s take an example. In the real world, acceptance or rejection by a friend is often fluid and open-ended, whereas online it’s denoted by precise metrics like the number of “friends”, “followers” and “likes”. And several scientific studies have confirmed that relying on online feedback for one’s self-esteem can lead to anxiety and depression, particularly in teens who feel isolated and excluded because they’re not popular enough on social networks.

This is exacerbated by yet another problem. The image that social media give of teens is often not the real one: it’s a fantasy mirror in which everyone looks more fabulous, happy and fulfilled than in real life. This can lead teens to unrealistic expectations of themselves, causing deficits in self-esteem, followed by anxiety and depression.

So what’s the key takeaway? There’s still much to be learned about the long-term effects of digitalization on our cognitive processes, but one thing is certain: nothing will ever be the same again.

  • Global digital population, Statista, as at January 2021
  • . The ‘online brain’: How the internet may be changing our cognition, World Psychiatry Journal, 6 May 2019

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