New update available: how the internet may be changing our brains

Written by Quinn Lui
Illustrated by Tammy Lee

Last year, the average Internet user from Canada spent nearly 6 hours online every day—and this was even before the Internet became the safest way to attend class or see our friends! As we approach the finish line of a mainly digital fall semester, many of us have become familiar with the physical effects of spending long days in front of a screen, from back pain to headaches and eye strain. But have you thought about the possible impacts of Internet usage on your brain?

In 2010, researchers found that we’re less likely to remember information if we know we can easily Google it later. This phenomenon, aptly named the “Google effect,” may be a form of transactive memory: our brains come to treat the Internet as an external memory storage device. Transactive memory systems frequently occur between people and are usually reciprocal. For example, you might remember family birthdays so your sibling doesn’t have to, while they’re the one who keeps track of what gifts your parents might like. But though we rely on the Internet to retain information, it doesn’t place a similar demand on us—and this may have a long-term impact on our memory capacity. Even more insidiously, we might not be able to notice if such effects are happening. The more time we spend on our digital devices, the more likely we are to overestimate what we truly “know,” compared to what we have to search up online.

Memory isn’t the only aspect of cognition that’s affected by our digitized lives. When we’re online, everything competes for our attention, from ads to notifications to whatever we should actually be focused on. According to a 2019 report, this overwhelming condition can eventually erode our ability to give anything our undivided attention, whether we’re online or offline. Young people might be especially prone to developing attention issues due to prolonged Internet overuse, but existing research mainly focuses on adults. However, this may change as kids and teens spend more time online—and as their parents and teachers get more concerned.

Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the age spectrum, the Internet has connected older adults with both mental and social stimulation that they might not be able to otherwise access. Internet usage can therefore help them combat the cognitive decline and isolation that frequently accompany old age.

Experts are careful to stress that we aren’t yet completely certain about any of the Internet’s lasting effects on our minds. Still, with much of our day-to-day lives now taking place before our screens, it’s wise to stay aware of the potential risks. Of course, it’s difficult to decrease our screen time when school, work, and our social lives demand that we stay plugged in. Conveniently for us—and perhaps ironically—the Internet is full of advice on how to improve your memory and focus, whether you’re studying for final tests or struggling to write papers before a deadline!