Internet addiction might cause the same brain changes that are seen in drug addicts and alcoholics, according to new research.
In one study, published in the Jan. 11 issue of PLoS One, researchers studied 17 men and women diagnosed with Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) and compared the scans of their brains to those of 16 healthy people who did not have IAD.
The study discovered patterns of “abnormal white matter” on the brain scans of Internet addicts that were not present in the scans of the non-addicts, which researchers say shows evidence of disrupting pathways related to decision-making, emotions, and self-control. They say similar white matter changes were found in the brain scans of people addicted to cocaine, heroin, alcohol, marijuana, and ketamine (Special K).
“The results also suggest that IAD may share psychological and neural mechanisms with other types of substance addiction and impulse control disorders,” the researchers wrote in the study.
Internet addiction can affect the brain in the same way as drugs and alcohol through several channels, including video games, pornography, and social media.
Internet Addiction More Likely Among Hardcore Gamers
Internet addiction is more likely among hardcore gamers, says Dr. Henrietta Bowden Jones, a consultant psychiatrist at Imperial College in London, who runs the only clinic for Internet addicts in the UK.
“The majority of people we see with serious Internet addiction are gamers–people who spend long hours in roles in various games that cause them to disregard their obligations,” Jones said. “I have seen people who stopped attending university lectures, failed their degrees or their marriages broke down because they were unable to emotionally connect with anything outside the game.”
Much research has been conducted about how video game addiction affects the brain. A study conducted in 2011 by psychologist Simone Kuhn of the University of Ghent in Belgium found that frequent gamers had a greater amount of gray matter–indicating a higher number of brain cell bodies–on the left side of the brain, known as the ventral striatum. This part of the brain is known to play a role in rewards and addiction. Frequent gamers also showed higher levels of activity in the ventral striatum when they were given feedback about losing points, which was similar compared to what is seen in gambling addicts.
Douglas Gentile, a psychologist at Iowa State who has been studying video game addiction for decades, says somewhere between 4 and 10 percent of gamers classify as being addicted. He says increased access is part of the problem.
“A risk factor for addiction is access,” he says. “It’s really hard to get addicted to drugs if you can’t get them. This is why we’re seeing Internet Gaming Disorder becoming a bigger problem because now, not only has almost everyone got a computer, and almost everyone has a video game system in their home … but now you’ve got a call phone and you’ve got games on it and you can access games pretty much everywhere.”
Pornography Addiction Continues to Climb
Pornography used to be harder to access because to view it you had to go buy a magazine or rent a video. Now it is widely accessible on the web with over 420 million adult web pages online.
“For the person who has difficulty stopping, more is only a click away,” says sex therapist Louanne Cole Weston, PhD.
There are also several experts who have called pornography “toxic” and even “comparable to cocaine.” One psychologist even said, “prolonged exposure to pornography stimulates a preference for depictions of group sex, sadomasochistic practices, and sexual contact with animals.”
“The therapists who treat pornography addicts say they behave just like any other addicts,” says Mary Anne Layden, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania.
While there are many experts that argue pornography is a compulsive behavior rather than an addiction, some research has been conducted that shows porn does have an affect on the brain that’s similar to other addicts. For example, a study conducted at Cambridge University found that compulsive porn users react to porn cues in the same way that drug addicts react to drug cues.
Social Media Addiction Growing
If you’re checking and interacting on social media sites constantly throughout the day, chances are you may have a social media addiction. In fact, social media sites have now made it even easier for you to become addicted by adding notifications to your mobile device, prompting you see every like, comment, tweet, and so on–all day long.
According to AdWeek, social networking now accounts for 28 percent of all media time spent online. In fact, users between the ages of 15 and 19 spend at least three hours per day on social media channels, while users ages 20 to 29 spend about two hours a day. In addition, 18 percent of social media users are unable to go a few hours without checking Facebook, and even 28 percent of iPhone users check their Twitter feed before getting out of bed in the morning.
Several studies show that social media sites can also affect the brain in similar ways to that of substance abusers and gambling addicts.
In one of these studies, published in “Psychological Reports: Disability and Trauma,” California State University undergraduate students filled out a questionnaire to determine how addicted they are to Facebook. They also completed another test responding to multiple images, some of which were random, while others were related to Facebook. The results showed that Facebook addiction was comparable to other addictions.
“The findings indicate that at least at the examined levels for addiction-like symptoms, technology-related ‘addictions’ share some neural features with substance and gambling addictions,” the researchers wrote in the study.
Facebook users showed no signs of negative effects of brain systems responsible for inhibition, but a frightening discovery was that some of the participants responded to Facebook-related images faster than they did to road signs.
“This is scary when you think about it, since it means that users might respond to a Facebook message on their mobile device before reacting to traffic conditions if they are using technology while on the road,” said professor Ofir Turel of California State.
There is Treatment for Internet Addiction
Internet addiction is real and it can damage careers, decrease productivity, and even harm relationships. The good news is it’s not as hard to wean yourself off of Internet addiction as it is for other addictions like drugs and alcohol. Here are some good practices that can help you kick your Internet addiction:
- Only check social media sites once per day
- Turn off notifications for social media sites on your mobile phone
- Limit video game playing to one hour a day or less
- Place your computer in a high traffic room in your house
There are also numerous counseling and therapy services available to those who may have a more difficult time quitting their Internet addiction. Visit our Addiction Resources page for a list of resources that can help.
It’s also important to note that a fraction of all Internet users have IAD. According to the Independent, about 5 to 10 percent of Internet users are considered addicts.