Phone showing social networking app icons sitting next to a laptop on a wooden table

Whether it’s working, job-hunting, communicating or entertainment, the amount of time Australians spend staring at a screen has accelerated with the outbreak of the coronavirus.

While this unprecedented connectivity brings many benefits — not least keeping millions of people in a job — an often-overlooked question is what our ever-expanding online lives are doing to our brain health and broader well-being.

A recent review of the science identified three key areas in which our neural circuits are affected by intensive online activity. The first is our cognitive capacities.

High levels of internet use and media multi-tasking can lead to less density — literally fewer neurons — in areas of the brain’s cortex critical for focusing on goals and avoiding distraction. Even the mere presence of a smartphone in our hand or on the desk next to us reduces our cognitive capacity for tasks.

Second, high levels of internet use appear to undermine our memory circuits – particularly the capacity to retain information. After all, who remembers phone numbers and street addresses anymore? With Zoom, we don’t even need to remember people’s names, and search engines have essentially put any facts at the end of our fingertips.

Finally, the internet is “amping up” areas of our brain responsible for processing social feedback. Real-life approval and disapproval from friends has been superseded by “liking” and “friending” online. Meanwhile, we’re even more susceptible to the “perfect versions” of our friends that are constructed online, often at the cost of our self-esteem and broader mental health.

At its more extreme, extensive online activity can lead to internet addiction — heightened anxiety and irritation when offline or device-free, and strong urges to check and interact with a device regularly. Compulsive internet use results in worse mental health — especially among adolescents, whose brains are still developing.

Further, a recent study colleagues and I conducted over four years found that using the internet compulsively weakens young people’s ability to regulate their emotions – a critical personal and professional skill for anyone wanting to succeed in the workplace.

For those of us stuck working online or job-hunting from home, how can we combat these effects? Here are five evidence-based strategies:

  1. Turn off message notifications on your devices while working and diarise specific times in the day for checking e-mail/phone apps. This reduces stress and increases well-being.
  2. Put your smartphone either in a drawer, a bag or another room when working. The key is not having it next to you. This will enhance your ability to focus and solve problems.
  3. Set yourself social media-free blocks of time – for example, certain days of the week or times each day. This will enhance your life satisfaction and well-being.
  4. Set yourself a 30-minute screen-free time before sleep to help unwind.
  5. Use a real alarm clock in the bedroom or a wristwatch. This reduces unintentional smartphone use when checking the time.

It’s highly unlikely any of us can function in the 21st century, let alone during a pandemic that requires us to self-isolate, without at least some screen-time. But there are steps we can take to reduce unintended harmful consequences of high internet use.

This article was originally published by the Sydney Morning Herald. Read the original article.

James is a Senior Lecturer (Teaching and Research) in the in Work and Organisational Studies discipline at the University of Sydney Business School, where he teaches management and leadership.

Related content