The debates surrounding the pros and cons of the internet and digital technologies seem to be never-ending as experts and other individuals keep offering their opinions on the subject. The topic has been so divisive that some people have stuck to the idea that the internet has been inherently good and ignore the views that there are dangers attached to it. Therefore, when one reads a book that states that the internet is damaging our brain, one is forced to seek scientific evidence from recent studies to try and find information that can support this position. The book The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains by Nicholas Carr evokes such a response as it explores both sides of the issue. For example, Carr states that the internet is a machine that had been designed to allow more efficient and automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of data (135). This is intended to make information search processes easier, but Carr believes this process of systemizing everything makes us shallow thinkers (171). This paper explores these ideas using other sources to determine how the internet affects the brain.
Internet, Digital Technologies, and the Human Brain
The best place to start this discussion is by highlighting the ideas in the book and proceed to examine how the author’s ideas conform with scientific findings and the opinions of other individuals. First, it is important to acknowledge that Carr finds the internet to be useful as a tool for accessing information and a platform for expressing ourselves (110). Today, there has been a paradigm shift where the internet now commands far greater insistency that the newspaper, radio, or television. The rationale is that the new digital media, especially such networking sites as Facebook, have become more attractive and engaging than the traditional media. As a result, the younger generations that have been born into the era of the internet have become hooked to their digital devices. It can be argued that staying out of the internet and social media can lead to social exclusion simply because a large part of social interactions take place through these platforms. Overall, the internet is not simply something that people in this day and age can give up on easily.
While acknowledging that the internet is critically useful for modern society, the author gives an argument for the other side of the story by expressing how the internet can be detrimental to the human brain. One argument by Carr is that the net chips away the capacity for concentration and contemplation, meaning that individuals, whether online or not, tend to consume information the way the internet distributes it (18). This statement can be interpreted to mean that people tend to consume information from the digital media without questioning it, which means anything posted on Facebook can be taken as the truth. Not many people will look at the information critically or engage their thoughts to deconstruct facts. In other cases, people have stopped reading books and rely on the internet as a sole source of intelligence, which can have negative consequences. In other words, the inability to stay attentive and the elimination of the thought process seemingly reduces an individual’s intelligence as opposed to enhancing it. Additionally, simple access to information does not automatically lead to improved knowledge or intellectual development.
The validity of the book’s argument can be assessed by comparing them to what other sources say about the internet and the human brain. In the media, articles are emerging sharing opinions and evidence regarding the sensitive nature of digital technologies and the internet. For example, an article in the Business Insider states that people are realizing that the internet is bad and are implementing interventions intended to reduce the time spent on the internet (Moskowitz). Additionally, there are retreats for the rich people that forbid phones and computers. Similarly, the rich tend to send their children to schools where the use of these technologies is banned, even those involved in the development of the technologies. In this case, the article makes an argument that the internet is generally bad for the brain as it causes other mental health issues, including anxiety. Additionally, the internet is seen as making people more isolated, lonely, and less self-confident. The evidence used to support this position comes from two studies in 2018 and 2019. Overall, the internet is considered to be detrimental to people, especially the youth.
The effects of the internet on the brain can vary from simple cognitive functions to major mental health issues. As mentioned earlier, Carr believed that the internet diminished the capacity for concentration (18). This argument can be backed by evidence that attention deficit disorders result from overuse of the digital technologies where more time spent on the internet reduces the attention given to other activities. This position is held by Resnick et al., who asked 11 experts to comment on whether the constant use of digital technologies affects the health of the human brain. The responses from the experts may not have been consistent, but the major findings indicated that there are high levels of distraction caused by the internet and digital technologies. Rather than being regulated, the attention of individuals is captured by the devices, which likens users to users to sailors without radar on the ocean. In other words, users do not always know what they are doing or searching on the internet and social media, which means that they drift through content and sites without a sense of purpose or direction.
One of the basic ideas expressed by scholars is that the internet has a possibility of making people more stupid or less smart since they always rely on their devices to do the thinking for them. Therefore, the best approach to this subject is by exploring how the internet and digital technologies affect cognition and brain function, as well as its health. According to Devine et al., the scientific evidence available illustrates the detriments of internet addiction on mental health (2). However, little is known about the cognitive effects of internet overuse. These scholars find that internet overuse is linked with reduced cognitive performance across such measures as executive functions. In this case, attention, memory, and inhibitory control are negatively affected. It is important to acknowledge that most of the scholarly words in this regard focus on youths and adolescents, the population that is mostly associated with internet addiction. Older generations may not display as high a prevalence of internet addiction as the millennials, which justifies the selection of the population and samples. The main idea is that scientific findings are showing that the internet damages the human brain.
Brain function and behavior have been targeted by many scholars on this subject, most of whom support the idea that digital technology is bad for the brain. The damage is often caused by extensive screen time, which is the main cause of attention-deficit. Other effects include impaired brain development, disrupted sleep, impaired social and emotional intelligence, technology addiction, and social isolation (Small et al. 179). The argument is that the detriments of the internet are determined by the time users spend on their devices as opposed to the use itself. Screentime means the hours a day that people spend surfing the internet or doing other things with their devices or on social media. In this case, overuse of the devices means that there is less time for the individual to do other things, which means less time to engage in activities that are positively related to brain development. Considering that the younger generations are often targeted in these studies, it can be argued that effects are more profound during younger ages since the development is still taking place.
However, some of these scientific studies reveal that the internet and digital devices could be useful for human brain development. Similar to the arguments by Carr regarding internet use, Small et al. advises that some uses, including video games and other programs, can help improve memory, fluid intellect, multitasking skills, and cognitive abilities (179). In this case, the argument becomes how the internet and digital devices determine whether the consequences are good or bad. Other studies on the internet-brain relationship emphasize such aspects as extensive usage and age differentials in the outcomes of internet use (Firth et al. 1). In this case, positive usage could be useful, including research purposes, news updates, and constructive communication with other people over the internet. On the contrary, extensive use of these technologies is what yields negative outcomes, including addiction and its consequences. These studies do not seek to label the internet as inherently bad for the brain, but they suggest that controlled usage could be the ultimate solution to all the negative consequences.
The three areas of cognition affected by the use of the internet are memory, attention, and social cognition. According to Firth et al., attention capacities are influenced by the constantly evolving streams of online information that cause divided attention to several media sources, which detrimentally affects concentration (119). In other words, users will scroll between sites searching for information as opposed to concentrating on one or a few and taking in the information. The attention deficit is manifested by the fact that users spend time on their devices, which reduces their attention to other aspects. Memory processes are affected by the paradigm shifts in the ways information is retrieved, and stored, and how knowledge is valued. In this case, the digital devices store the information from where it can easily be accessed, which eliminates the need for human memory. Therefore, this aspect of cognition is increasingly diminished as many people do not exercise their brain capacities for both short-term and long-term memory. Lastly, social cognition comprises self-esteem and self-concepts developed through social interactions over the Internet, where negative uses detrimentally affect social cognition.
Since internet use has both positive and negative consequences, it is important to acknowledge some of the insights into how digital technologies can be used as tools for cognitive enhancement. A study by Voinea et al. offers a critical assessment of the cognitive enhancement potential of the internet (2345). In this case, the internet is not perceived as a simple and uniform technology either in its use or composition. On the contrary, it is a complex technology with multiple uses where billions of people across the globe have easy and unlimited access. Several aspects of this technology are associated with cognitive potential depending on the use. For example, external hardware and software tend to offer humans cognitive abilities that are far beyond those of biological brains. As such, engaging with the internet is a means of enhancing one’s knowledge from sources and knowledge bases far better than human brains. Another example is the fact that the interactivity of the internet and its ability to bring together people from across the world facilitates collaboration and coordination in the construction of shared knowledge and solutions.
From these examples, it can be argued that the internet is a tool that has the potential to enhance human brain development, especially the cognitive aspect. The cognitive potential may not be achieved as explained by Voinea et al., for such reasons as the improper use of the technology. If people were to effectively utilize the internet and digital devices, it can be argued that the internet could boost brain development as opposed to damaging it.
For many people, the internet is indispensable due to its uses and the purposes it serves. Today, most of the internet is availed through the internet and the digital devices to levels that surpass books and the traditional media. The shifts are made apparent by the fact that even the traditional media is moving online and utilizing the internet as a means to extend its coverage. For instance, such new media as magazines, newspapers, and television can all be accessed through the internet. Therefore, the heated debate regarding the pros and cons of the internet can be understood to be a conflict of interests between parties that appreciate the internet and those that might fear it. Even so, it is important to acknowledge that Carr is right by insinuating the easy access to information made possible by the internet (135). In this case, both arguments for and against the internet seem to be valid.
The understanding and acknowledgment of the usefulness of the internet should not be too blinding for people not to see the potential dangers it poses. In this regard, it is easier to agree with the evidence suggesting how bad the internet is to our brains. The cases of mental health are perhaps more apparent than human cognition, which would require greater scientific techniques to determine. However, social isolation and anxiety are observable symptoms that any person can determine. As explained by Moskowitz, the internet is full of information intended to make everything simple for humans. This aspect makes it difficult for people to fully engage their brains, which detrimentally affects cognition. The most interesting observation, and one which could create a consensus between the pros and cons, is the fact that the extent and use of the internet determine positive and negative consequences. Extensive use is bad, while purposeful and constructive use should be good for the human brain.
Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.
Devine, Diana, et al. “Internet Addiction, Cognitive, and Dispositional Factors among US Adults.” Computers in Human Behavior Reports, vol. 6, 2022, pp. 1-11.
Firth, Joseph et al. “The “Online Brain”: How the Internet May be Changing Our Cognition.” World Psychiatry, vol.18, no. 2, 2019, pp. 119-129.
Firth, Josh, et al. “Exploring the Impact of Internet Use on Memory and Attention Processes.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 17, no.24, 2020, pp. 1-12.
Moskowitz, Peter. “The Internet is Destroying Our Brains, But We Can’t Quit. It’s a Factory We’re Forced to Work in Without Any Pay.” 2021. Business Insider.
Resnick, Brian, et al. “Is Our Constant Use of Digital Technologies Affecting Our Brain Health? We Asked 11 Experts.” 2019. Vox.
Small, Gary, et al. “Brain Health Consequences of Digital Technology Use.” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, vol. 22, no. 2, 2020, pp. 179-187.
Voinea, Cristina, et al. “The Internet as Cognitive Enhancement.” Science and Engineering Ethics, vol. 26, no. 4, 2020, pp. 2345-2362.