The Internet is the favorite obsession of the modern age. It does not respect age, social condition, sex, or any other criteria. Users range from those who barely know how to use e-mail to some who live their entire lives in the online world.
Sometimes, raising any concern about Internet use causes others to treat you like someone obsessed. The consensus is that the Internet’s only harm is its misuse. The Internet is a tool. Use it for good and good will come of it; evil uses will carry their punishment.
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A recent study questions this assumption, and argues that use of the Internet can harm the person by its use. Titled, The “Online Brain”: How the Internet May Be Changing Our Cognition, it is the work of eleven psychiatrists connected to seventeen different universities and research institutes. It was published in the June 2018 issue of World Psychiatry.
The study explores three major areas:
- Ways that the stream of information affects concentration
- Effects on memory
- The impact of substituting real-world social situations with those of the online world
The online world is one of endless variety with millions of websites competing to grab the attention of the reader. Ample evidence suggests this decreases attention span. Adding to this problem is the increase of multi-tasking, in which the user tries to do many activities at the same time. When using a single device to do this, many switch tasks as rapidly as every nineteen seconds.
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When multiple devices are accessed at the same time, the effect is multiplied. The overall indication unsurprisingly pointed to a decline in the ability to complete tasks that require sustained effort.
All agree that the Internet increases access to information of many kinds. Finding facts that once required a trip to the library and consulting books has now become instant. A smartphone can show lost travelers the way back to the right road within seconds.
The study finds that many depend so much on the Internet that they do not attempt to retain information in their memories. They often remember the source of the knowledge rather than the knowledge itself. Users experience a reduced ability to retain “unique” information—that which is not easily accessible—that may be needed in the future. They also tend to take little notice of other ways of retaining information.
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Thus, regular users of GPS may be unable to find their way using road signs and maps if their smartphones malfunction.
The Internet transforms the ways users interact with society. An individual may have a large number of international “friends,” without ever traveling more than twenty miles from home. In this context, the study’s authors question whether such interactions can substitute for face-to-face relationships.
Evidence shows that virtual relationships stimulate the brain differently than personal contact. A person’s on-screen photo image is easier to modify than an actual presence. A Facebook self-portrayal will often be much more positive than real life. This perception of manipulation creates distrust since people cannot be certain of the truth of an altered photo. However, the habits formed in virtual “friendships” can indeed affect real relationships—virtual distrust can translate into real life distrust.
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The study’s authors admit that there is a need for more specific research. However, the dangers of over-reliance are real. Each person needs to answer essential questions about how to deal with the potential harms of being attached to the “online brain.”
Four things might be done.
First, do not allow the Internet to replace other forms of learning. Make sure that you know how to read a map, for instance, use a dictionary or encyclopedia, or read a book. Make sure that you can read and write in cursive handwriting—a keyboard is not always available. Many in the education world are trying to eliminate such training. Don’t let them.
Second, limit the amount of time that you spend online. A daily half-hour on social media to catch up with old friends may be fine. Being on Facebook for four hours is dangerous. Designate “device-free” zones in your life. Many turn their smartphones off on Sunday or at seven o’clock in the evening. Others keep the devices out of their bedrooms. Make sure that others know that you do this, both to escape temptations to violate your own rules and to avoid offending those who expect that you will be instantly available.
Third, carve out times that are devoted to real relationships. For example, some insist that all devices be turned off at suppertime. Others redouble their efforts to pursue such traditional social occasions as inviting others into their home for dessert, playing board or card games, or reading aloud to each other. Expect resistance at first. Many people have lost the habit of such pursuits.
Fourth, and most importantly, set aside time for prayer. The online world cannot meet the need for connection to Our Lord, Our Lady, the patron saints and angels.
Temperance is the Christian virtue that establishes balance in life. Do not let the enticements of the online world destroy your way of thinking or turn your mind into an “online brain.”