The Impact of the Internet on the Brain: What Do We Really Know?

Almost every week you hear a new report of the dangers of the impact of our new technologies: the internet, various digital devices, gaming…Here’s a wonderfully refreshing video that reviews what the research-to-date actually tells us about the impact of the Internet on the brain. Dr. Paul Howard Jones goes through popular fears about technology and discusses what the research tells us about whether or not those fears are warranted.

Dr. Jones makes many excellent points, including these two:

  • Many of studies compare novice technology users’ brains to those of experienced users, or they look at how a user’s brain changes over time after interacting with the technology. The changes demonstrated may be more reflective of learning than of the impact of technology per se. We already know that learning changes the brain. So these studies may tell us more about the impact of certain types of learning and less about how the learning took place (e.g. via some specific technology).
  • Talking about the impact of video gaming is meaningless. One needs to look at what’s happening in the video games. Is the gamer shooting people? Or solving problems? These are very different experiences that will have very different consequences.

What I like best about this video is the balance that characterizes the speaker’s perspective. For example, he acknowledges what some research (on violent games) has demonstrated while making sure we don’t overgeneralize those findings.

But don’t take my word for it..please check out the video. I would love to hear others’ reactions (even if you don’t agree with my assessment).

Photo courtesy of Tza

10 thoughts on “The Impact of the Internet on the Brain: What Do We Really Know?

  1. I enjoyed this article and the video. Of course, I am to “the Left” of him in terms of gaming a bit,and I think my main dispute would be the implied idea that somehow aggression is bad, and empathy is good. I think that both aggression and empathy are important leadership qualities, and depending on the occupation or role of the individual aggression may actually be more important than empathy. I think we social workers tend to be biased towards empathy and against aggression.

    Still, that was only one piece of the presentation, for the most part I want to try to contact him and get the bibliography he cited in the presentation!


  2. I was curious about what your “take” would be on this video, Mike. Thanks for weighing in!

    My memory is that there is a growing body of research on the social/evolutionary benefits of empathy (most recently involving oxytocin), so I’m not sure I agree that reduced empathy isn’t something to be concerned about. However, I agree that aggression, per se, doesn’t have to be a problem–it all depends on how it’s channeled. I seem to recall, too, that even he mentioned that assessing an increase in the feeling of aggression isn’t the same as it resulting in an inappropriate behavior.

    I’ll be interested to hear if you receive a response from him. And I would love to see his references, too!


    • Oh, I wasn’t meaning to say that reduced empathy is inherently a good thing. I was more focussing on how aggression was under attack (pun intended) and that in some professions I think aggression may be more important than empathy for success. But maybe one can’t increase one without decreasing the other? (dissertation idea for someone..)


  3. I finally had the time to sit down and watch this video and I absolutely love it. I too was thinking, “What will Mike have to say about this?” 😀 So Mike if you do get the references, please share.

    The thing that I focused on in this video is the idea that we should focus on the HOW. How we use the technology is just as important as the technology itself. Of course I am a bit biased in this regard as I have been heavily influenced by the writings of Henry Jenkins, specifically his New Media Literacies. I just can’t help but think how many social workers and social work educators get caught up in the technology aspect rather than thinking about the HOW. Again, technology is important but I do think that we need to be more cognizant of what we are using technology for. I am thinking more along the lines of pedagogy as I have been working with the school of social work at VCU and the distance education program. There are concerns that certain courses should and cannot be taught in any other format than face-to-face.

    I understand the trepidation but often, as we have been discussing for 2 years now, I am troubled by the fact that individuals are not more cognizant of their educational outcomes. Actually, I take that back. They are aware, as they know what they want to have happen, but the problem is they don’t know what the technology can do or not do. Thinking about how a teenager connected to the internet is different now than in the 90’s, helps me understand that we (social workers) need to be more aware of what technology can do but we need to be MORE aware of what we want it to do.

    I am starting to get on a soapbox here so I’ll end with this. Technology is changed us, our interactions, and relationships. I know some don’t care about technology but just as we need continuing education to be competent social workers, I think we need continuing education around technology.

    Overall, I really enjoyed the video so thanks Nancy for sharing.


    • I agree completely, Jimmy. The HOW is what we should be talking about…and the outcomes. When people are afraid they focus on what they are fearful of and lose sight of the whole picture.


  4. Interesting talk. After reading The Shallows, what the internet is doing to our brains and Alone Together, why we expect more from technology and less from each other, I thought there are a lot more downsides to be covered.

    If I wanted to get my masters or Ph. D studying how digital technology affects people, where should I begin? It sounded like you all were engaged in the field and would appreciate any insight.


  5. Every new technology solve problems and creates a new set of challenges (William Powers, author of Hamlet’s Blackberry). It takes society a while to figure out how to integrate it. In the mean time there are many, many fears about the change. I would highly recommend his book to provide some perspective about how society has struggled with new technologies at the time they were introduced (starting with writing!). I talk a little about the challenges we’re confronting now in my post on Digital Life Skills:

    Re: degrees to research/study the impact of the Internet. It all depends on how you want to come at the issue, Brandon. Certainly these days people like to use neuroscience, but social scientists partner with neuroscientists more and more. I think the best research will be done by combining social science and neuroscience.

    You could come at these studies from the angle of cognitive psychology, or social psychology, or neuroscience, or sociology, or social work…you get the idea. It’s most important to get solid research training. I would recommend first seeing who is doing the research. I know Mike was going to contact this presenter to get his references, you might want to do that too (or check with Mike on his blog about this).

    Identify the studies, and therefore, the disciplines that are most exciting to you and use this to point yourself in the right direction. Your best bet would be to look at pursuing a degree at the places where the people who are doing the research work. When you do a research project on a topic (as a student) it’s really best to make sure there are faculty with expertise in your topic.

    Also, FYI, Frontline (PBS) did an episode called Digital Nation that is worth viewing; they presented some other interesting research that’s being done. I was able to view it on Netflix.


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