Ryan Huang ’16, THURJ Staff

How much of my life have I wasted on the internet? As a diligent Harvard student, I make sure to limit my daily YouTube and Facebook usage to two hours. That means I will have spent roughly 8% of some of the most productive years of my life watching random cat videos and absent-mindedly scrolling through inane Facebook posts. Sadly for our generation, I am not the exception.

The internet has somehow wedged its way into every facet of our lives. Instant connection over immeasurably long distances has permanently transformed the means by which we work, relax, socialize, and learn. As a society, we are becoming dependent on this powerful omnipresent tool and it’s becoming problematic. Individuals cannot control the time they spend on the internet, leading to decreased productivity in the workplace, social isolation in real life, and behavioral disorders.

Across the Pacific, internet dependency is treated as a serious mental illness. In 2006, the South Korean government reported that 2.1% of its youth was addicted to the internet and required treatment. Furthermore, an astounding 80% of addicts required medication to manage symptoms and about 20-24% required hospitalization. In China, 13.7% of adolescents, or about 10 million teenagers, are considered internet addicts. No comparative statistics are available for the United States as internet is mostly accessed in private homes instead of public cafés, in contrast to many Asian countries. Our perception of internet addiction is far more benign than that of the South Korean or Chinese public. At most, we jokingly allude to the hours we have lost on Facebook or YouTube before diving straight back in. Perhaps our internet problem is really not as serious as that of developed countries in East Asia. Nevertheless, we should gain a fuller understanding of the strange nature of internet addiction (Block 2008).

“There has been no solid agreement on the criteria needed to diagnose internet-dependent disorders.”

The field of research on internet addiction is relatively young, with the first paper on the subject published in 1996. As a result, there has been no solid agreement on the criteria needed to diagnose internet-dependent disorders. “There are a number of different ways in which it’s measured,” says Sadie Cole, who conducts research on social anxiety and problematic internet use and is a third-year graduate student in the Clinical Science doctoral program of psychology at Harvard.  “Most people can agree, however, that the concept of internet addiction or problematic internet use really comprises of some level of dysfunction in the individuals’ life…  Like with any other mental health problem, if there isn’t some level distress or dysfunction, it really isn’t a problem.” In addition, addicted individuals will build up higher tolerance for internet use and experience withdrawal when deprived of stimulation, similar to other forms of addiction. Internet addiction can be further subdivided into gaming, messaging, and sexual activity categories.

In the short history of the internet, many have even questioned the existence of internet addiction. After all, if the internet is a medium, perhaps it is only serving to facilitate and fuel other behavioral disorders that would have occurred without the internet, such as compulsive gambling and shopping. Nevertheless, certain addictions such as e-mailing, chat rooms, gaming, and cybersexual behavior could not have occurred without the internet. Thus, it’s important to distinguish addictions that take place over the internet and addiction to internet-specific activities (Widyanto and Griffiths 2006).

Perhaps the most perplexing yet interesting aspect of internet addiction is the mechanism by which the internet hooks individuals. On a very general level, achieving a goal or anticipating the reward of new content or information will release dopamine to excite neurons in the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain, the brain’s pleasure center. This mechanism applies to online gaming, chat rooms, text messaging, and other sorts of internet-related behavior.  As individuals become accustomed to these little bursts of pleasure, they will seek out more opportunities for stimulation by participating more in online behavior, fueling a vicious cycle and creating addiction. On a more specific level, however, researchers have a difficult time classifying the neurobiological mechanisms of internet addiction. Some studies have accentuated their similarity to substance abuse disorders while others have negated these similarities (Davidow 2012).

For example, in a 2009 study of gaming addicts, participants were shown gameplay images of World of Warcraft as well as random mosaic pictures. The addicts, when shown pictures of the video game, consistently displayed greater activity in certain regions of the brain than the non-addicts. Furthermore, the activation of these regions was positively correlated with self-reported gaming urges upon viewing these images. The study demonstrates how visual cues can induce craving in gaming addicts. The very same activated brain regions associated with gaming urges are also associated with substance abuse disorders, suggesting a similar mechanism (Ko et al. 2009).

On the other hand, a 2013 study found that levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that affects neurons in the brain, did not differ between internet addicts and non-addicts. Many scientists believe BDNF to be an important factor in the development and maintenance of other addictive disorders, so it is strange that internet addiction does not share the same pattern whereby addicts and non-addicts exhibit differing levels of BDNF. The study suggests an altogether different and unknown pathway by which the internet can cause dependency (Geisel et al 2013). As research continues, we hope to gain more insight into the mysterious nature by which internet can cause dependence. New discoveries are made every few months, and scientists have even found that the CHRNA4 gene, which codes for a nicotinic acetylcholine receptor subunit and is linked to tobacco dependency, is significantly associated with internet addiction. Thus, both genes and environment seem to play vital roles in determining risk for dependency (Montag et al 2012).

“The internet, despite its integration into all aspects of life, can be contained. We just have to remember that the internet is the means, not the end; it exists to facilitate life, not become it.”

Because we spend so many of our waking hours on the net, shouldn’t we all be at risk for addiction? After all, we use the internet at work, home, and school. Evidence shows, however, that preference for online social interaction is one of the best predictors of pathological internet use while excessive use is one of the weakest predictors (Widyanto and Griffiths 2006).  In other words, the quality of our internet use (i.e. whether we use it to socialize or obtain information) determines addiction risk much better than the quantity. Unfortunately, the rise of online social networks, forums, blogs, and instant messaging are changing the reasons we use the internet, creating a more desirable medium to interact with others and raising individual risk for internet dependence.

And contrary to popular opinion, in the online gaming context, it is not adolescent males who are most at risk for addiction. “There are really no differences between men and women in terms of the amount that people were using the internet, in that context,” says Cole about a recent study conducted on World of Warcraft players who met the criteria for problematic internet use. “We think internet addiction, we think younger people. But I actually had a pretty large range of ages in that study… It’s not really just the young, 18-24 age bracket. I think what we’re seeing a lot of is people, around their early 30’s, who really were the first generation to grow up with internet access and they are continuing that [problematic use] into their late 20s early 30s and even farther.” In addition, it is true that individuals who experience social anxiety or social phobia are more at risk for dependence, as anonymous communication via text can be less daunting than face-to-face interaction.

Internet addiction is a very real disorder, affecting millions in Asia and an unknown number in the United States. Disease mechanisms are not well understood and the increasing use of internet as a social medium is increasing the risk of addiction for multiple age groups. Yet, internet addiction is very low on our list of public health priorities. Could it be that distinct sociocultural conditions in the U.S. have made us “immune” to the internet dependency problems that have developed in Asia? Or are we simply ignoring and underdiagnosing a very serious issue? There is not enough research to answer that question, but you can conduct an experiment for yourself: spend a weekend entirely shut off from the internet. No smartphone, no Facebook, and no computer. Evaluate yourself over the course of the weekend. Make a mental note of every time you find yourself fishing for the non-existent phone in your pocket, in response to “phantom buzzes”. Remember the times when you start developing an itch to browse Reddit or update your Twitter. Chances are that most of us will experience strong urges to get back online.

We cannot walk away from new technologies and innovations such as the internet. They are powerful tools that facilitate everyday activities and push the envelope forward for what society, as a whole, can achieve. The internet, despite its integration into all aspects of life, can be contained. We just have to remember that the internet is the means, not the end; it exists to facilitate life, not become it.

References

Block, Jerald J. “Issues for DSM-V: Internet Addiction.” The American Journal of Psychiatry. 165.3 (2008): Web. 27 May 2013.

Cole, Sadie. Personal interview. 23 April 2013.

Davidow, Bill. “Exploiting the Neuroscience of Internet Addiction.” The Atlantic. 18 July 2012. Web. 27 May 2013.

Geisel, Olga, Roman Banas, Michael Schneider, Rainer Hellweg, Christian A. Muller. “Serum levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor in patients with internet use disorder.” Psychiatry Res. (2013): Web. 27 May 2013.

Ko, Chih-Hung, Gin-Chung Liu, Sigmund Hsiao, Ju-Yu Yen, Ming-Jen Yang, Wei-Chen Lin,

Cheng-Fang Yen, Cheng-Sheng Chen. “Brain activities associated with gaming urge of online gaming addiction.” Journal of Psychiatric Research. 43.7 (2009): Web. 27 May 2013.

Montag, Christian PhD, Peter Kirsch, Carina Sauer, Sebastian Markett, Martin Reuter. “The Role of the CHRNA4 Gene in Internet Addiction: A Case-control study.” Journal of Addiction Medicine. 6.3 (2012): Web. 27 May 2013.

Widyanto, Laura and Mark Griffiths. “’Internet Addiction’: A Critical Review.” Int J Meant Health Addict. 4 (2006): Web. 27 May 2013.

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