How much time is too much online? Like many things, people can become addicted to the Internet, though psychological diagnosis manuals still refer to Internet Addiction as an “impulse control disorder“, which means that as yet there is insufficient evidence to truly confirm that “Internet Addiction Disorder” (IAD) is a true medical condition. However, new evidence from the Chinese Academy of Sciences shows for the first time that people who spend hours on end connected to the Internet have the same kind of brain structure as people with addictions to alcohol, drugs and so on. In other words, it looks very much as though it truly is possible to be addicted to the Internet.
Until this study, many psychologists have believed that so-called Internet Addiction is merely obsessive behaviour and that people who are completely obsessed by an online-game or Facebook, for instance, have a problem with controlling their impulses – they are motivated by the short-term gains of the elated emotions they feel whilst online, without considering the long-term impacts on their lifestyle, for instance. Addicts, however, often know they are doing the wrong things, but are unable to live without their “fix”. Indeed, the diagnosis of “addiction” requires the confirmation of either physical symptoms upon withdrawal of the addictive substance, or disruption to normal relationships and lifestyle. Few people who are obsessed with some aspect of the Internet have ever been shown to be in such dire straits, hence that’s why true addiction to the web is something which up until now has not been thought to be very likely.
But the new research from China could change that viewpoint. The fact that the brain differences have been observed using a controlled study, comparing “addicts” to “healthy”, matched individuals, suggests that Internet Addiction Disorder is very real indeed. However, the study does not tell us what the brains of the participants in the study were like BEFORE they used the Internet. We don’t know if the Internet caused changes to their brain structure, or if their brains were differently structured in the first place. What we do know, though, is that in other forms of addictions similar brain structures do exist. It may well be that these brain differences compared with healthy people are what leads some individuals to become “addictive”.
However, you do not need to use MRI scanners to find out if someone is addicted to the Internet. All you need to do is look at their behaviour. People who are so obsessed with the web that their normal life is disrupted clearly have a problem. When relationships suffer as a result of excessive Internet use, that is also a signal that something is wrong.
In the workplace, if people are taking shorter lunch-breaks, or no lunch-break at all then this could suggest that their work is disrupted by over-use of the Internet. Similarly, if their work deadlines are continually extended or missed, it is a sign that something is wrong. Equally, if their friends in the office start “gossiping” about them because they no longer go for that after-work drink, it is a signal of colleague relationship problems. Whilst these things could be explained by other factors, Internet Addiction could also be a consideration.
What this new research now tells us is the fact that some people clearly can become addicted to the Internet. With more and more businesses relying on the web in the workplace, this problem could eventually become more significant than alcoholism, which already costs an estimated $185 billion to the US economy each year and £20 billion a year in the UK. Perhaps it is time for us all to think about the way we use the Internet – it IS addictive.
- Internet Addiction Harms Brain ‘Like Cocaine’ (news.sky.com)
- Internet addicts’ brain structure similar to drug addicts’: study (vancouversun.com)
- Web addicts ‘have brain changes’ (bbc.co.uk)
Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist who studies the way people use the online world, in particular how people engage with businesses. He uses this knowledge to help companies improve their online connections to their customers and potential customers and offers consultancy, workshops, masterclasses and webinars. He also speaks regularly at conferences and business events. Graham is an award-winning writer and the author of 32 books, several of which are about various aspects of the Internet. For more information connect with me on Google+