We’ve all heard about the reports that excessive use of the internet can lead to poor social skills and solitary behaviour, but now a new study has shown that too much use can cause parts of teenagers’ brains to actually waste away. Researchers have discovered that parts of grey matter in particularly heavy internet users are showing signs of decay and atrophy which only gets worse over prolonged use and time. The study began by taking university students and classifying them as internet addicts by giving them a questionnaire to complete. The questionnaire consisted of eight questions, which including whether they had stayed online longer than they had intended and whether they used the internet as a way of escaping from problems or an anxious mood etc.
Researchers then took MRI brain scans from the 18 university students, aged 19, who had completed the questionnaire and spent eight to 13 hours a day playing games online, six days a week. They then compared them with a control group of 18 students who spent fewer than two hours a day on the internet. A set of MRI images were taken on the grey matter in areas where it is known that memory, emotions, speech, sight, hearing and motor control processing occurs. After comparing the two sets of grey matter between the groups it was shown that atrophy had occurred within several small regions of all the online addicts’ brains. Furthermore, the longer the internet addicts continued with their internet use, the worse the damage became. There were also significant changes in deep-brain tissue called white matter. This is where messages are passed between different areas of grey matter in the nervous system. It is thought that atrophy in these parts of the brain could contribute to a lack of concentration and memory, poor attention spans as well as people’s ability to make informed decisions. It could also reduce their inhibitions and lead to ‘inappropriate’ behaviour.
It is estimated that in China alone, 24 million young people are estimated to be addicted to the internet and UK charity Childwise suggest that on average, children spend roughly five hours and 20 minutes a day in front of a TV or computer screens. The study, which was published in the PLoS ONE journal, was carried out by neuroscientists and radiologists at universities and hospitals in China, and has been described by Dr Aric Sigman, a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, as a ‘wake-up call’. He says, ‘It strikes me as a terrible shame that our society requires photos of brains shrinking in order to take seriously the common-sense assumption that long hours in front of screens is not good for our children’s health.’
Although the study was conducted on a very small scale, it does appear to highlight a growing concern of prolonged internet use and the effects of such on children and teenagers. However, this research shows that there is an actual physiological result of too much internet use, whereas before the effects were only recognised as being behavioural. There is the question however that perhaps it is not that amount of time children are spending on the internet but what they are actually doing that is harmful. If a child is researching and using the internet for a tool in which to help them study, I wonder whether the results would show the same brain atrophy.