The Nominet Trust is a UK-based charity with the mission to “support initiatives that contribute to a safe and accessible Internet, used to improve lives and communities.” Recently, they published a report entitled, “The Impact of Digital Technologies on Human Wellbeing.” It’s published as a PDF, one that is so well-designed that it’s quite digestible on-screen.
The report was covered in the New Scientist where the reporter boiled the conclusion of the report down in a rather histrionic tone: “the internet has actually been the victim of some sort of vicious smear campaign.”
Reading the report by neuroscientist Paul Howard-Jones doesn’t leave you with quite that polemic an impression. In fact, the report is balanced and inclusive. It also confirms that it’s better to be careful when interpreting scientific findings.
For instance, as I wrote about here recently, the notion of “Internet addiction” is shaky at best, a spin on facts at worst. Another common meme is Nicholas Carr’s extended riff on “rewiring of the brain,” with its pretentious and insidious overtones providing a fussy wrapper for anachronism.
In the new report written by Howard-Jones, both the notion that Internet addiction is a cause of problems rather than an effect of problems is squarely addressed (it’s best viewed as an effect), and the science behind the narrative of “the Internet rewiring our brains” is also dealt with reasonably and authoritatively (it’s not rewiring our brains any more than getting a DVR or smartphone rewires your brain — that is, you learn how to use it, then get the hang of it, hence are rewired, like when you learned how to read, count, walk, or type).
But don’t take my word for it. Here’s a nice excerpt about this supposed Internet addiction for your edification (references have been edited out so I don’t have to put in a bunch of superscript you can’t use — see the full report for the references):
Many discussions of internet addiction, however, fail to discriminate between what the internet is being used for, despite over-use of the internet being associated with one or more specific types of problematic behaviour. In a study of mental health practitioners, adults seeking help for excessive use of the internet focused on excessive access of pornography or online communication related to infidelity, while issues of excessive use by young people focused chiefly on gaming. . . . the significant predictors of problematic usage appear to be low self-esteem, anxiety and the use of the internet for sensation-seeking activities that the user considers to be important. . . . some researchers maintain that internet addiction is not a true addiction, but may be the product of other existing disorders such as depression, or a ‘phase of life problem’. . . . some of the chief hazards of internet addiction (marital, academic and professional problems, together with sleep deprivation) might be the cause rather than the effect of excessive internet use.
And here’s a nice excerpt involving the supposedly dangerous and insidious “rewiring of our brains”:
Gary Small and colleagues carried out a novel study of how the brains of middle-aged and older participants respond when using an internet search engine. Compared with reading text, they found that internet searching increased activation in several regions of the brain, but only amongst those participants with internet experience. Based on the regions involved, the researchers suggested that internet searching alters the brain’s responsiveness in neural circuits controlling decision making and complex reasoning (in frontal regions, anterior cingulate and hippocampus). However, because an uncontrolled task was used, it is difficult to know what cognitive processes the participants were carrying out. This is a problem when attempting to draw conclusions about neural differences. It is possible that, even when they were supposed to be searching, less experienced users were spending more time reading text while their ‘savvy’ users who had learnt how to use search engines were using sophisticated search strategies. After five days of training for an hour a day, the internet-naïve participants were producing similar activations as their more experienced counterparts. . . . Changes in neural activation in different regions can be expected when learning any task for the first time. For example, after adults learned to carry out complex multiplication, the brain activity produced by carrying out this task shifted from frontal to posterior regions (suggesting less working memory load and more automatic processing).
As you can see, this is much more objective than the hyperbole so often used to sell magazines, secure book deals, or dominate television time. With a calm and authoritative voice, the entire report is worth perusing, touching on questions like:
- Do multitaskers have an advantage?
- Can you train your brain to work more efficiently online?
- Why are video games so attractive?
- Can you learn more using video games?
- Do violent or social games make you more violent or social?
- Does the Internet lead to attention problems?
- Does the Internet make us more sedentary?
- Are we losing sleep over the Internet?
Because the report is broken out nicely into summaries around “We Know That . . . ” and “We Do Not Know . . .” you can quickly imbibe some perspective before diving into each section’s detailed prose and citations.
The bottom line? Despite the warnings from self-appointed experts, there is less to worry about with the Internet than there is with — well, with automobiles, guns, drugs, social isolation, aging, recessions, wars, food poisoning, or pollution. So, while it’s nice to fret about the new, it’s even better to put things into the proper perspective and priority.
The Internet is a big deal, but it’s certainly not dangerous.