Mental Health

Think You Spend Too Much Time on the Internet? It May Actually Keep Your Brain Sharp as You Age

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If your friends and family chide you for spending too much time on the internet, you can now tell them it’s for your health! A new study found that getting online can keep your mind sharp. But does the activity matter? Is Facebook better for mental stimulation than reading the news? How much time online is too much? 

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Researchers from Norway, Ireland, and the United Kingdom tried to answer these questions and more in a paper published by the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization. Using data from the Survey of Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe, or SHARE, the team examined the cognitive function of over 2,100 Europeans in 2013 and 2015. Interestingly, all the study subjects held jobs in the 1980s and 1990s, back when most lines of work didn’t require computer usage. All the participants had retired in 2004.  

The survey also included information on the retirees’ socioeconomic status, health, and daily activities. This allowed the research team to investigate the effects of internet usage on an older population. Indeed, the study authors found that retired Europeans with low rates of cognitive decline were more likely to get online.  

To make this connection, the team examined the results of a 10-word cognitive test, which all survey participants had to take. On average, Europeans who used the internet recalled 1.22 more words than those who did not. Women who used the internet showed the biggest improvement. They recalled 2.37 more words than women who didn’t go online at all.  

However, study co-author Vincent O’Sullivan, a lecturer at Lancaster University, is not sure why internet activity may boost mental sharpness. “To be honest, we don’t know for certain,” he told UPI. “We have a number of hypotheses. We think it has to do with socialization. You are connected to people through the internet, through social media, you are more engaged with people, perhaps at a time in your life where it’s hard to meet people or arrange to meet people physically.”  

The research team did acknowledge that its study had a few snags. For instance, retirees who used the internet performed better on cognition tests, but those retirees tended to be men who were younger than the others with a high level of education and better health. Furthermore, cognitive decline is linked to poor health and a lower quality of life, two factors that the internet can’t fix.  

Still, the idea that online socialization could improve brain function isn’t far off. Plenty of research shows that social interaction is a huge part of cognitive development, even as we age. Joining in on a conversation is like brain exercise, keeping your mind sharp and healthy. A 2017 study ran this point home when it found that socialization can lower the risk of dementia in adults who are over 80 years old. While Facebook messages certainly aren’t the same as a one-on-one coffee date, they may offer a feeling of connection and a chance to exercise your brain.  

So, what’s a good amount of time to spend online? Some studies have found a link between long hours on the internet and poor mental health, which suggests that moderation is key. However, rather than shutting down your computer as soon as you reach a two-hour limit, some experts recommend creating a balance between online activities and alternative activities. In other words, spend some time online and then go for a walk. Keeping up on your non-internet activities can also sharpen your mind, too.  

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