The impact of the Internet across multiple aspects of modern society is clear. However, the influence that it may have on our brain structure and functioning remains a central topic of investigation. Here we draw on recent psychological, psychiatric and neuroimaging findings to examine several key hypotheses on how the Internet may be changing our cognition. Specifically, we explore how unique features of the online world may be influencing: a) attentional capacities, as the constantly evolving stream of online information encourages our divided attention across multiple media sources, at the expense of sustained concentration; b) memory processes, as this vast and ubiquitous source of online information begins to shift the way we retrieve, store, and even value knowledge; and c) social cognition, as the ability for online social settings to resemble and evoke real-world social processes creates a new interplay between the Internet and our social lives, including our self-concepts and self-esteem. Overall, the available evidence indicates that the Internet can produce both acute and sustained alterations in each of these areas of cognition, which may be reflected in changes in the brain. However, an emerging priority for future research is to determine the effects of extensive online media usage on cognitive development in youth, and examine how this may differ from cognitive outcomes and brain impact of uses of Internet in the elderly. We conclude by proposing how Internet research could be integrated into broader research settings to study how this unprecedented new facet of society can affect our cognition and the brain across the life course.
Keywords: Internet; addiction; attention; cognition; memory; social media; social structures; virtual reality.
© 2019 World Psychiatric Association.