Moderate Internet use unlikely to harm teenagers' brains, study finds

 

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Moderate Internet use does not appear to adversely affect the development of teenage brains according to a review of more than a hundred published studies of typical computer use among adolescents.

The findings undermine the arguments put forward by some prominent commentators such as the Oxford neuroscientist Susan Greenfield who believe that children are being damaged by prolonged exposure to the virtual world of cyberspace.

However, the author of the latest study emphasised that although she could not find evidence to support Professor Greenfield’s hypothesis, there has not been enough research to prove that typical Internet use is harmless to the developing adolescent brain.

“The main conclusion from this review was that I did not find evidence that typical Internet use is affecting teenage brains… Finding a lack of evidence is different from finding evidence that there is no effect. This is why this is a call for more studies,” said Kathryn Mills of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London.

“We don’t know very much about how typical Internet use is affecting the adolescent brain. Many of the studies look at individuals with problematic Internet use and not many look at the majority of the population, as over 95 per cent of adolescents do not have problematic Internet use,” Ms Mills said.

“We typically hear that the Internet could be harming brain development but this is actually skewed because it is based on samples that are not representative of the majority of adolescents,” she said.

The review analysed 134 published studies on adolescent brains and moderate or typical Internet use. It deliberately ignored studies involving heavy Internet use involving teenagers that had developed a recognised psychological problem associated with prolonged exposure to the internet.

Ms Mills said that she also ignored the effect of late-night Internet or computer video games on sleeping patterns among adolescents, which has been a concern to teachers complaining that some pupils are too tired to concentrate on their schoolwork.

However, she did find that some studies showed a positive benefit of Internet use, particularly if it was linked with educational research, sports clubs or social networking.

“Moderate Internet use with an emphasis on information gathering is actually related to really positive academic outcomes,” Ms Mills said.

Some of the studies she analysed also showed a “Google effect” on the ability of students to remember information that they knew could be found online.

“Expecting to have future access to information made students less likely to remember specific aspects of information but more likely to remember where to find that information. In a way this is one example of a change in our cognitive skills,” she said.

The study, published in the journal Trends in Neuroscience, says that the vast majority of teachers are concerned that today’s teenagers have shorter attention spans than in previous generations and that digital technologies have fundamentally affected their cognitive skills.

However, despite the fact that the brain is undergoing critical “rewiring” during adolescence, none of the 134 studies showed that this was being adversely affected by moderate computer use, Ms Mills said.

“On some level, all experience is affecting our brain, but it depends on what people mean when they say that something is rewiring the brain, [but] major changes are unlikely to be affected by Internet use,” she said.

“What future studies should focus on is different aspects of Internet use, because studies that have looked at how Internet use affects wellbeing and behaviour have found different effects based on what people are doing on the Internet,” she added.

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