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Psychological effects of Internet use

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Title: Psychological effects of Internet use  
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Subject: Gerontology, Cognitive science, Index of Internet-related articles
Collection: Cognitive Science, Cyberpsychology, Gerontology, Internet Culture, Neurology
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Psychological effects of Internet use

Various researchers have undertaken efforts to examine the psychological effects of Internet use. Some research employs studying brain functions in Internet users. Some studies assert that these changes are harmful, while others argue that asserted changes are beneficial.[1]


  • Assertions 1
  • MRI studies 2
    • Effect on traditional reading 2.1
  • Brain power 3
  • Productivity 4
  • Effects of social networking and behavior 5
  • Attention span 6
  • Effects of anonymity 7
  • Internet addiction and disinhibition 8
  • Escapism 9
  • Effects on parenting 10
    • Parental Internet use and opinions towards family impact 10.1
    • Parental response to child online consumption 10.2
    • Effects of Internet use on parent-child relationships 10.3
  • References 11
  • External links 12


American writer Nicholas Carr asserts that Internet use reduces the deep thinking that leads to true creativity. He also says that hyperlinks and overstimulation means that the brain must give most of its attention to short-term decisions. Carr also states that the vast availability of information on the World Wide Web overwhelms the brain and hurts long-term memory. He says that the availability of stimuli leads to a very large cognitive load, which makes it difficult to remember anything.[2][3]

Computer scientist Ramesh Sitaraman has asserted that Internet users are impatient and are likely to get more impatient with time.[4] In a large-scale research study[5][6] that completed in 2012 involving millions of users watching videos on the Internet, Krishnan and Sitaraman show that users start to abandon online videos if they do not start playing within two seconds.[7] In addition, users with faster Internet connections (such as FTTH) showed less patience and abandoned videos at a faster rate than users with slower Internet connections. Many commentators have since argued that these results provide a glimpse into the future: as Internet services become faster and provide more instant gratification, people become less patient[8][9] and less able to delay gratification and work towards longer term rewards.[10]

Psychologist Steven Pinker, however, argues that people have control over what they do, and that research and reasoning never came naturally to people. He says that "experience does not revamp the basic information-processing capacities of the brain" and asserts that the Internet is actually making people smarter.[11]

Psychologist Andre De Castro from York College NY says that social networks are the true downfall for people who use the Internet. In his research paper he describes how social networks allow people to draw on their "mirror image." This causes a disturbing psychological effect, which can confuse people on their true identities. De Castro also discusses how time consuming social networks can become for the common student. He also discusses the anxiety that constantly checking your phone can bring to the average human. Andre De Castro discusses how social networks are more addictive than drugs and can serve a severe psychological impact in the long-run of constant Internet use. He believes people go through phases and being a social network junkie is a common phase people eventually will find themselves out of. He states "It can take years to break through the social network addiction." His research paper touches on this topic in many ways.

MRI studies

The BBC describes the research published in the peer-reviewed science journal PLoS ONE:

"A research team led by Hao Lei of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan carried out brain scans of 35 men and women aged between 14 and 21. Seventeen of them were classed as having Internet addiction disorder (IAD) on the basis of answering yes to questions such as, “Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back or stop Internet use?”[12]

Specialised MRI brain scans showed changes in the white matter of the brain—the part that contains nerve fibres—in those classed as being web addicts, compared with non-addicts. Furthermore, the study says, "We provided evidences demonstrating the multiple structural changes of the brain in IAD subjects. VBM results indicated the decreased gray matter volume in the bilateral dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), the supplementary motor area (SMA), the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), the cerebellum and the left rostral ACC (rACC)." [13]

UCLA professor of psychiatry Gary Small studied brain activity in experienced web surfers versus casual web surfers. He used MRI scans on both groups to evaluate brain activity. The study showed that when Internet surfing, the brain activity of the experienced Internet users was far more extensive than that of the novices, particularly in areas of the prefrontal cortex associated with problem-solving and decision making. However, the two groups had no significant differences in brain activity when reading blocks of text. This evidence suggested that the distinctive neural pathways of experienced Web users had developed because of their Web use. Dr. Small concluded that “The current explosion of digital technology not only is changing the way we live and communicate, but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains.” [14]

Effect on traditional reading

In an August 2008 article in The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr experientially asserts that using the Internet can lead to lower attention span and make it more difficult to read in the traditional sense (that is, read a book at length without mental interruptions). He says that he and his friends have found it more difficult to concentrate and read whole books, even though they read a great deal when they were younger (that is, when they did not have access to the Internet).[15] This assertion is based on anecdotal evidence, not controlled research.

Researchers from the University College London have done a 5-year study on Internet habits, and have found that people using the sites exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. The 2008 report says, "It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense."[16]

Brain power

Research suggests that using the Internet helps boost brain power for middle-aged and older people[17] (research on younger people has not been done). The study compares brain activity when the subjects were reading and when the subjects were surfing the Internet. It found that Internet surfing uses much more brain activity than reading does. Lead researcher Professor Gary Small said: "The study results are encouraging, that emerging computerized technologies may have physiological effects and potential benefits for middle-aged and older adults.[18] Internet searching engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function."[19]


One of the most widely debated effects of social networking has been its influence on productivity. In many schools and workplaces, Facebook and MySpace are blocked because employers believe their employees will be distracted and unfocused on the sites. It seems, at least from one study, that employers do, indeed, have reason to be concerned. A survey from Hearst Communications found that productivity levels of people that used social networking sites were 1.5% lower than those that did not.[20] Logically, people cannot get work done when they are performing other tasks. If the employees suffer from degrading self-control, it will be even harder for them to get back to work and maintain productivity.

Effects of social networking and behavior

Evgeny Morozov has said that social networking could be potentially harmful to people. He writes that they can destroy privacy, and notes that "Insurance companies have accessed their patients’ Facebook accounts to try to disprove they have hard-to-verify health problems like depression; employers have checked social networking sites to vet future employees; university authorities have searched the web for photos of their students’ drinking or smoking pot." He also said that the Internet also makes people more complacent and risk averse. He said that because much of the ubiquity of modern technology—cameras, recorders, and such—people may not want to act in unusual ways for fear of getting a bad name. People can see pictures and videos of you on the Internet, and this may make you act differently.[21]

Attention span

According to the New York Times, many scientists say that "people's ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information".[22]

From 53,573 page views taken from various users, 17% of the views lasted less than 4 seconds while 4% lasted more than 10 minutes. In regards to page content, users will only read 49% of a site that contains 111 words or fewer while users will opt to read 28% of an average website (approximately 593 words). For each additional 100 words on a site, users will spend 4.4 seconds longer on the site.[23]

Although attention span has been decreasing over time (decreased from 12 seconds to 8 seconds in 2000-2012),[23] it is found that those who read articles online go through the article more thoroughly than those who read from print-based materials. Upon choosing their reading material, almost 66% of people who opt to read online would read the entire piece as opposed to stopping midway.[24]

Effects of anonymity

Interacting on the Internet mostly does not involve "physical" interactions with another person (i.e. face-to-face conversation), and therefore easily leads to a person feeling free to act differently online, as well as unrestraint in civility and minimization of authority, etc.

People who are socially anxious are more likely to use electronic communication as their only means of communication. This, in turn, makes them more likely to disclose personal information to strangers online that they normally wouldn't give out face-to-face.[25] The phenomenon is a likely cause for the prevalence of cyberbullying, especially for children who do not understand "social networking etiquette."

Internet addiction and disinhibition

People become addicted or dependent on the Internet through excessive computer use that interferes with daily life.

"Aric Sigman’s presentation to members of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health outlined the parallels between screen dependency and alcohol and drug addiction: the instant stimulation provided by all those flickering graphics leads to the release of dopamine, a chemical that’s central to the brain’s reward system".[26]


Ease of access to the Internet can increase escapism in which a user uses the Internet as an "escape" from the perceived unpleasant or banal aspects of daily/real life.

Effects on parenting

"A psychologist, Aric Sigman, warned of the perils of “passive parenting” and “benign neglect” caused by parent's reliance on gadgets".[26]

The effects of the Internet on parenting can be observed a how parents utilize the Internet, the response to their child's Internet consumption, as well as the effects and influences that the Internet has on the relationship between parent and child.

Parental Internet use and opinions towards family impact

Overall, parents are seen to do simple tasks such as sending e-mails and keep up with current events whereas social networking sites are less frequented. In regards to researching parental material, a study conducted in January 2012 by the University of Minnesota found that 75% of questioned parents have stated that the Internet improves their method of obtaining parenting related information, 19.7% found parenting websites too complex to navigate, and 13.1% of the group did not find any useful parenting information on any website.[27]

Many studies have shown that parents view the Internet as a hub of information especially in their children's education.[28] They feel that it is a valuable commodity that can enhance their learning experience and when used in this manner it does not contribute to any family tension or conflicts. However, when the Internet is used as a social medium (either online gaming or social networking sites) there is a positive correlation between the use of the Internet and family conflicts. In conjunction with using the Internet for social means, there is a risk of exposing familial information to strangers, which is perceived to parents as a threat and can ultimately weaken family boundaries.

Parental response to child online consumption

A report released in October 2012 by Ofcom focused on the amount of online consumption done by children aged 5–15 and how the parents react to their child’s consumption. Of the parents interviewed, 85% use a form of online mediation ranging from face-to-face talks with their children about online surfing to cellphone browser filters. The remaining 15% of parents do not take active measures to adequately inform their children of safe Internet browsing; these parents have either spoken only briefly to their children about cautious surfing or do not do anything at all.

Parents are active in monitoring their child’s online use by using methods such as investigating the browsing history and by regulating Internet usage. However, since parents are less versed in Internet usage than their children they are more concerned with the Internet interfering with family life than online matters such as child grooming or cyber-bullying.

When addressing those with lack of parental control over the Internet, parents state that their child is rarely alone (defined for children from 5–11 years old) or that they trust their children when they are online (for children 12–15 years old). Approximately 80% of parents ensure that their child has been taught Internet safety from school and 70% of parents feel that the benefits of using the Internet are greater than the risks that come along with it.[29]

Conversely an American study, conducted by PewInternet released on November 20, 2012, reveal that parents are highly concerned about the problems the Internet can impose on their teenage children. 47% of parents are tend to worry about their children being exposed to inappropriate material on the Internet and 45% of the parents are concerned about their children’s behaviour towards each other both online and offline. Only 31% of parents showed concern about the Internet taking away social time from the family.[30]

Effects of Internet use on parent-child relationships

Researcher Sanford Grossbart and others explores the relationship between the mother and child and how Internet use affects this relationship. This study forms its basis around Marvin Sussman and Suzanne Steinmetz’s idea that the relationship between parent and child is highly influenced by the changing experiences and events of each generation.[31] “Parental warmth” is a factor in how receptive a parent is to being taught the nuances of the Internet by their child versus the traditional method of the parent influencing the child. If the parent displayed “warm” tendencies she was more open to learning how to use the Internet from their child even if the parent happened to be more knowledgeable on the subject. This fosters teaching in a positive environment, which sustains a strong relationship between mother and child, encourages education, and promotes mature behaviour. “Cooler” mothers only allowed themselves to be taught if they thought that their child held the same amount of knowledge or greater and would dismiss the teaching otherwise suggesting a relationship that stems from the majority of influence coming from the parent.[32]

However despite warm and cool parenting methods, parents who encounter a language barrier rely more heavily on their children to utilize the Internet. Professor Vikki Katz from Rutgers University has studied the interaction between immigrant parents and children and how they use technology. Katz notes that the majority resources that immigrants find helpful are located online, however the search algorithms currently in place do not direct languages other than English appropriately. Because of this shortcoming, parents strongly encourage their bilingual children to bridge the gap between the Internet and language.[33]

The Internet is increasingly being used as a virtual babysitter when parents actively download applications specifically for their children with intentions to keep them calm. A survey conducted by Ipsos has found that half of the interviewed parents believe children ages 8–13 are old enough to own or carry smartphones thus increasing online content consumption in younger generations.[34]


  1. ^ "Carr, Pinker, the shallows, and the nature-nurture canard : Neuron Culture". Retrieved 20 September 2011. 
  2. ^ "Author Nicholas Carr: The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains | Magazine". 2010-05-24. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  3. ^ "The effects of the Internet: Fast forward". The Economist. 2010-06-24. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  4. ^ "NPR Morning Edition: In Video-Streaming Rat Race, Fast is Never Fast Enough, October 2012". 
  5. ^ "Video Stream Quality Impacts Viewer Behavior, by Krishnan and Sitaraman, ACM Internet Measurement Conference, Nov 2012.". 
  6. ^ "Science Daily: How Online Video Stream Quality Affect Viewer Behavior, November 2012". 
  7. ^ "CNN: Online viewers ditch slow-loading video after 2 seconds, November 2012". 
  8. ^ "Patience is a Network Effect, by Nicholas Carr, Nov 2012". 
  9. ^ [1] The Patience Deficit, by Nicholas Carr, Dec 2013.
  10. ^ "Boston Globe: Instant gratification is making us perpetually impatient, Feb 2013". 
  11. ^ Pinker, Steven (2010-06-10). "Mind Over Mass Media". The New York Times. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  12. ^ Helen Briggs (11 January 2012). "Web addicts have brain changes, research suggests". BBC News. Retrieved 17 March 2013. 
  13. ^ Yuan K, Qin W, Wang G, Zeng F, Zhao L, et al. (3 June 2011). "Microstructure Abnormalities in Adolescents with Internet Addiction Disorder". PLoS ONE. 6(6): e20708.  
  14. ^ Nicholas Carr (24 May 2010). "The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains". Wired Magazine. Retrieved 20 September 2011. 
  15. ^ Nicholas Carr (1July/August 2008). "Is Google Making Us Stupid?". The Atlantic. Retrieved 20 September 2011. 
  16. ^ "The Google generation: the information behaviour of the researcher of the future", I Rowlands, D Nicholas, P Williams; P Huntington, M Fieldhouse, B Gunter, R Withey, HR Jamali, T Dobrowolski, C Tenopir, ASLIB Proceedings, vol. 60, issue 4 (2008), pp. 290-310, The Association for Information Management, Emerald Group Publishing Limited. DOI: 10.1108/00012530810887953. Retrieved 15 October 2013.
  17. ^ Chivers, Tom (2009-10-21). "Internet use 'may improve brain function in adults', says UCLA study". The Telegraph UK. 
  18. ^ "Internet Use Increases Brain Activity in Seniors". DailyChump. 2012. 
  19. ^ "'"Internet use 'good for the brain. BBC News. 2008-10-14. 
  20. ^ Jung, Brian. "The Negative Effect of Social Media on Society and Individuals". Chron. Hearst Communications, Inc. Retrieved 8 February 2013. 
  21. ^ "Losing our minds to the web". Prospect Magazine. 2010-06-22. Retrieved 20 September 2011. 
  22. ^ Richtel, Matt (2010-06-06). "Attached to Technology and Paying a Price". The New York Times. 
  23. ^ a b "Attention Span Statistics". Statistic Brain. The Associated Press. 16 May 2012. Retrieved 10 February 2013. 
  24. ^ Goldsmith, Belinda (31 March 2007). "Web news readers have greater attention span: study". Reuters. Retrieved 10 February 2013. 
  25. ^ Cyberbullying: Bullying in the Digital Age
  26. ^ a b Rowan Pelling (22 May 2012). "How technology is taking hold of our children's lives". Telegraph. Retrieved 26 May 2012. 
  27. ^ Jessie Connell (March 2012). "Parents' Use of Technology and the Internet". University of Minnesota. 
  28. ^ Mesch, Gustavo (2007). "Family Relations and the Internet: Exploring a Family Boundaries Approach". The Journal of Family Communication: 119–138. 
  29. ^ "Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report". Ofcom. 23 October 2012. Retrieved 10 February 2013. 
  30. ^ Mary Madden, Sandra Cortesi, Urs Gasser, Amanda Lenhart, Maeve Duggan (20 November 2012). "Parents, Teens, and Online Privacy". Pew Research Center. Retrieved 10 February 2013. 
  31. ^ Sussman, Marvin; Suzanne Steinmetz (1987). Handbook of Marriage and the Family. New York: Plenum Press. 
  32. ^ Sanford Grossbart, Stephanie McConnell Hughes, Susie Pryor, Amber Yost (2002). "Socialization Aspects of Parents, Children, and the Internet". Advances in Consumer Research 29: 66–70. Retrieved 10 February 2013. 
  33. ^ Schmidt, Alex (12 October 2011). "Immigrant Parents Rely On Kids For Help Online". NPR. Retrieved 10 February 2013. 
  34. ^ Atagana, Michelle (21 September 2012). "US parents relying on mobile devices to entertain their kids [Survey]". Memeburn. Retrieved 10 February 2013. 

External links

  • "50 things that are being killed by the internet", Matthew Moore, The Telegraph, 4 September 2009
  • "Attached to Technology and Paying a Price", Matt Richtel, New York Times, 6 June 2010
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