A review of recent studies looking at the effects of problematic internet use have revealed some interesting findings. Internet addiction is usually defined as the inability to control use of the Internet, eventually causing psychological, social, and work difficulties. It is commonly associated with depression, anger problems and anxiety. But what other effects have studies of the brain revealed?
Positron emission tomography (PET)
The brain regions identified are typically related to impulse control disorders such as gambling and drug addiction. Other areas of the brains such as reward processing have frequently been found to be affected in these studies. It appears that Internet Addiction shares many of the psychological and neural mechanisms of drug addiction.
These studies showed less efficiency in information processing and lower cognitive control with evidence of longer reaction time and impaired executive control. This means that the parts of the brain associated with planning, goal completion and organization have been affected.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging
Craving is defined as state or a strong desire that is produced by stimuli associated with reward effects of substance or a behavior. For instance, when Pavlov’s dog heard a bell ringing, it began to salivate because it had been “conditioned” to expect food.
The same experience has been noted individuals who play excessive amounts of internet games – so called casual gaming sites – as users are “conditioned” to expect rewards for achieving certain tasks. When exposure to the game is removed, the craving remains and can cause “internet seeking” behavior. Craving is considered one of the most important features of substance dependence.
It is generally considered that addiction is a compulsive, uncontrollable dependence of a substance, habit, or practice with cessation (stopping it) causing emotional, mental, or physiological reactions that are distressing to the person. The question is whether this definition can realistically applied to the use of modern technologies such as the internet.
The American Psychiatric Association has refused to find a place for addiction to the internet or the new term Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) in its forthcoming DSM V classification, stating that further research needs to be conducted, before the diagnosis can be considered valid.
Experts who have argued that IAD should be classified in DSM V have divided the condition into subtypes such as excessive social networking, pornography use, online gaming, blogging, email, or e-commerce.
Recent studies have shown that people who are “addicted to the internet” may show addictive behaviors in other areas such as alcohol, nicotine, and gambling. However, there is also evidence that excessive internet use is more akin to obsessive compulsive disorder. A further study has shown changes in the brain in teenagers who excessively use the internet.
Juicier than any reality show, people find watching actors cycle through addiction, rehabilitation and relapsing endlessly fascinating. It should be no surprise when celebrities reveal their online addiction.
It really is no wonder that we watch with such rapt attention when our own lives mirror the very problems that plague our stars. Our own chances of becoming an Internet addict are high, especially if we are unlucky enough to have the additional risk factors of depression, anxiety or loneliness.
Look at some Internet addiction statistics:
* Upwards of ten million Americans use the Internet on a daily basis.
* As many as five to ten percent of Americans may be addicted to Internet games, social media, pornography or shopping.
* Fifteen percent of MMORPG players get positive scores on Internet addiction tests. Out of this group, less than one percent attempt to find Internet addiction therapy.
Online addiction, like any other obsessive behavior, may not be more frequently found in wealthy or famous populations. However, dysfunctional behavior requiring Internet addiction therapy is more likely to be addressed properly when the addict is able to afford to pay for therapy out of pocket.
One recent example of a famous Internet addict is Russell Brand. Russell’s behavior involved repeatedly searching for his own name on search engines. He ended up addicted to the Internet, compulsively Googling himself to see what people were saying about him.
Jennifer Aniston has supposedly dumped John Mayer for becoming addicted to the Internet. John Mayer compulsively used Twitter, an online microblogging service. Their relationship began to suffer when he was unable to make time to spend with her, but was still able to update Twitter frequently through the day. Internet addiction statistics show that this couple is not alone with this trouble. As many as six percent of couples report that Internet abuse is causing problems with their relationship.
Is it time to stop rubbernecking when we learn about celebrities’ weaknesses. Taking the time to focus inwardly will give us the opportunity to seriously address the potential problems that online addiction can cause. Internet addiction therapy can help salvage marriages and careers before the damage is too serious.
Our culture is heavily dependent on technology for every day tasks. We purchase electronics in the name of saving time. On an average day, eight minutes are spent on adjusting settings on the washing machine, far less time than it would take to wash a comparable amount of clothing by hand. However, somewhere along the line, most of us lost sight of the goal of saving time. As many as nine hours a day are spent fiddling with various electronic gadgetry. The majority of this time is spent accessing the Internet, either on a desktop computer, laptop computer, game console or a portable device.
When one in eight people considers themselves to be addicted to the Internet, it’s important to take the time to figure out what is causing so many problems. Desktop computers and game consoles are versatile, but their size generally prevents them from being taken out of the house. Laptop computers are portable but most people prefer to use them while seated at a table. Tablet computers, such as the ipad, and smartphones have become the preferred method of accessing the Internet while on the go. Between WIFI being accessible at many stores and restaurants and mobile phone signals while traveling, it’s easy to remain connected to the Internet at all times.
Until a few years ago, the mobile phone industry was dominated by “dumb phones” and the Blackberry smartphone. As the first popular smartphone, the Blackberry picked up a huge number of fans. The Blackberry, or Crackberry as it soon began being called, integrated a cell phone with the apps previously only available on a PDA. These apps appealed to business people and students, instantly leading to widespread “Blackberry addiction”.
When android OS and iPhone OS became available, some of the Blackberry fans transitioned over to these touch screen based phones. Owners of Apple brand products were likely to become an iPhone addict, even if only out of brand loyalty. The intuitive interface made the iPhone easy to use, even for those who were not computer literate. iPhone addiction was strong enough to justify the premium prices that Apple was asking. Android phones gained popularity among the open source community and the phones were generally less expensive than the comparable iPhones.
Apple revolutionized the computer industry in 2010 when they released the first Ipad. Each Ipad addict had to buy one right away, helping to sell a record breaking three million in under three months. This lightweight tablet computer boasted a powerful, long lived battery and large clear screen, making it ideal for portable Internet access. Whether being used for email, multimedia or graphic design, Ipad addiction became commonplace.
Whether you get online with a Blackberry, android OS phone, iPhone or a tablet computer like an Ipad, you are in good company. With millions of Americans using mobile devices on a daily basis, Internet addiction is only likely to become more common. Desktop and laptop computers will never be replaced entirely with mobile devices, but for the Internet addicted population, portable tablets and smartphones are their technology of choice.
Decades ago, Internet access was limited to computer professionals and students. The concept of an “Internet addict” was popularized by Dr. Goldberg in 1995. This psychiatrist’s website introduced this affliction to parody the American Psychiatric Association’s history of giving medical diagnoses to excessive behavior. While Dr Goldberg’s writing was intended to be humorous, Internet addiction clearly requires further study.
One year earlier, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh began investigating the possibility of online addiction. Within two years, a psychiatric center opened in Massachusetts for Internet addiction therapy.
Despite this humorous origin, Internet addiction is beginning to be taken seriously. The APA is considering adding it to the DSM as a separate diagnosis from other compulsive behaviors. There is already a private residential treatment program in the United States to provide Internet addiction therapy.
By 1996, a study by Mark Griffiths offered theories about the demographics of Internet addicts. He considered young males with poor social skills at higher risk for potential Internet addiction. This was the first study to acknowledge the growing problems with Cybersex addictions.
The paper “Is the Internet Addictive, or Are Addicts Using the Internet?” was published in 1997. Storm Kim theorizes that poor social skills and low self esteem make socializing online easier and increases the likelihood of becoming addicted to the Internet.
Dr. Kimberly S. Young founded the Center for Online Addiction in 1998. Research showed that over half of self identifying Internet addicts admitted to excessive pornography and online sex. Looking at Internet addiction statistics shows that many also suffer from depression and anxiety and use the Internet to self medicate. She advocates for a distinct category in the DSM to diagnose Internet abuse.
In 1997, Viktor Brenners’s study supported the theory that Internet use caused true dependency. He felt that the link between personality disorders and quality of life and Internet addiction should be investigated further.
Mark Griffiths published another paper in 1998 to propose that Internet use causes physiological changes in a small number of people, thus meeting the criteria for addiction. The author of Virtual Addiction and ABCNews.com performed a study together in 1999 indicating that Internet use can create mood altering effects similar to those experienced with compulsive gambling, shopping and sex. By 2007, the director of the Computer Addiction Study Center at McLean Hospital declared that between five and ten percent of Internet users had some level of addiction. More current Internet addiction statistics also show a smaller gap between the sexes.
A Chinese study in 2011 confirmed that intensive use of the Internet changed the size of different parts of the brain. It also altered the way the subjects learned, making computer use more efficient but causing damage to short term memory and decision making.
Internet addiction is not an official diagnosis yet, but the APA acknowledges that it is becoming a serious problem. Most people are able to use the Internet safely, but in the presence of depression, anxiety and poor social skills, the risk of becoming an Internet addict increases. As Internet addiction receives increasing amounts of attention from the APA, finding a way to prevent this disorder becomes more likely.
A recent study has been widely reported in the press as providing evidence that internet addiction can lead to brain damage. The study demonstrated that individuals who spent excessive time on the internet developed “grey matter” changes. This has raised particular concern because of the potential effects on adolescents’ growing brains, which are thought to to be more vulnerable than adults.
I take a different view, although these results should clearly be interpreted with caution. Advanced neuroradiology techniques such as fMRI can now identify microscopic changes in brain structure that result from our environmental surroundings. But does this mean these environmental effects are harmful?
A growing movement in neuroscience is the concept of neuroplasticity, the idea that brains adapt, grow and shrink according to what we use our brains for. This concept is helping to revolutionize our understanding and attitude to aging, memory decline and learning.
Of course, it is not right to say that internet overuse is a positive behavior, but the evidence that internet addiction is causing brain damage is not as clear as you would think. For a start, any changes are almost certainly likely to be reversible. No doubt, we will see more studies and reporting about this area, but the question remains: what behavioral changes are resulting from internet overuse rather than the red herring of brain damage caused by internet addiction?
I started my career as a psychiatrist but grew up just as the Internet was radically altering our lives. I later became an Internet entrepreneur and worked in Silicon Valley and came to see how the technology companies of today dominate our lives and are engaged in an endless battle for our attention. What struck me over the time I was seeing patients was the number whose mental health was affected by overuse of the Internet.
I saw suicidal teens whose lives became dramatically altered by their interactions with social networking sites. I heard how retirees coped with their social isolation by playing online solitaire, yet felt lonely and depressed. I met men whose relationships had broken down due to their use of internet pornography. And increasingly I met professionals who spent their working lives online, but were suffering from the tension and restlessness of incessant internet use.
Nowadays, it seems that everybody has their own technology compulsion. Many people question the existence of “Internet Addiction Disorder” as a formal clinical syndrome. But when I started researching this area it became apparent to me that whatever the terminology, the effects of internet overuse were becoming a huge public health problem and causing distress to millions of people of all types of backgrounds.
On Yahoo answers, I found more than 5000 questions relating to internet addiction. I then tested my hypothesis that many people would like more help and advice, and the email newsletter I created was flooded with enquiries. Many people were tortured by the compulsive internet behaviors they developed while connected to their PCs , smartphones another digital devices.
So the purpose of this site is to provide impartial practical information, tips and resources; I hope it is of help.
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