-Matthew J. Edlund, MD
Continually connecting can make you deeply disconnected.
Is This Addiction?
Can you get addicted to internet use? A new Chinese study argues that it certainly happens; that it clearly changes brain and behavior; and that the brain changes seen are in many ways similar to what happens with drug addiction and gambling.
Kids Who Can’t Stop
The adolescents – aged 14 to 21 – studied in Shanghai and Wuhan were a rather special group. Their preoccupation with the Internet was encompassing. They took more and more time on the Net; tried to cut back but could not; felt restless and irritable when they did; stayed on longer than they should. Many also lied to their families about their use of the Net, and jeopardized school or job performance.
They really couldn’t stop.
But they were not depressed. Previous researchers had argued that kids addicted to the internet were simply depressed, drug addicted or psychotic, or suffering severe anxiety disorders – their compulsive Net use was just an outlet for other problems. The Shanghai adolescents were clinically excluded from having such problems. They were then matched with a control group age and sex matched kids – and sent off to be tested in the MRI machine.
Were the compulsive internet users truly comparable to the controls? No. On at least one questionnaire the unstoppable internet users were more anxious than the control group. Yet anxiety was certainly implied in their inability to stop using the Net – and in its deleterious social results.
The compulsive internet users certainly looked different from the control group. Previous work had shown decreased grey matter in the cingulated cortex, insula and lingual gyrus – areas involved with emotion and executive decision making. Other studies argued poor information processing and lower impulse control. The Shanghai-Wuhan researchers were interested in white matter – the connections between different brain areas.
And they were different.
Major changes were seen in the corpus callosum – which connects hemispheres – and areas like the internal capsule and precentral gyrus. The authors argued that white matter was disrupted in a host of areas involving emotion, decision making, and repetitive behaviors. The results were fairly similar to what was seen in people who frequently used alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine.
1. There are kids using the Net who truly can’t stop. Though clinicians argue about whether they’re behavior is “compulsive” as opposed to addictive, it really messes up their lives.
2. Though the adolescents looked at in this study were truly extreme – and overall may be few in number – their brains were distinctly different in unhealthy ways.
3. Internet use is probably like most behaviorally defined actions – a continuous variable – not a dichotomous, yes or no one. Lots of adolescents may not be as compulsive as these Chinese kids, but fear being disconnected from the Net and deeply dislike having to focus their attention elsewhere. Many kids may be able to get away from the Net much of the time – but not all the time.
4. As noted by Dr. Henrietta Bowden-Jones in an interview with BBC News, behavioral “addictions” lead to the same brain changes as pharmacological ones.
5. China is advancing rapidly in biological and medical research, as it has in other arenas. Problems with plagiarism and overzealous publishing should not obscure excellent scientific work.
What you do changes your brain function and anatomy – rather quickly. Compulsive internet use can appear as functionally destructive as compulsive drug use or gambling.
And compulsive internet use may become a preferred outlet for much of the society suffering from depression and anxiety disorders.
In this case, continuous connection may ultimately create disruptive disconnection – social, psychological, and emotional.
What we do is what we become. The Net continues to change human brains, as Nicholas Carr pointed out in his book “The Shallows.” The changes will most probably become more profound as virtual reality technologically improves.
Will kids appearance on their Facebook page become more important to them than their real appearance?
We may soon find out.