Internet addiction: Fact or fiction?

A recent study found similar brain changes between people addicted to the internet and drug addicts, prompting debate on whether internet addiction should be classified as a psychological disorder.

The PLoS ONE study, conducted in China, found that the brains of internet addicts had damaged white matter. This effects the brain’s ability to focus, generate and process emotions, and make decisions.

It was the first study of its kind to link internet addiction with changes in the brain. Researchers used MRI scanners on adolescents who they classified as addicts, but who had no symptoms of other disorders such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder and schizophrenia.

Is it a real disorder?

The argument against internet addiction is that the disorders mentioned above facilitate addiction to the internet, and that internet addiction is merely a symptom of these psychological disorders.

“Somebody who is more prone to anxiety or depression is also more prone to addiction,” said Kim Hellemans, a neuroscience and psychology professor at Carleton University.

The internet can also contribute to other addictions by providing easier access, she said. Things like shopping, pornography and gambling require little effort to access on the internet.

Young people are more likely to exhibit signs of internet addiction.

Young people are more likely to exhibit signs of internet addiction. Photo credit: Ebony Griffin

“Online, everything’s there. I think in some ways it can be a bit more dangerous,” Hellemans said.

A study by the Clinical Psychology Review (CPR) echoed this statement, presenting the argument that “ ‘internet addicts’ are not addicted to the internet itself, but use it as a medium to fuel other addictions.”

However, there are those who argue that internet addiction should be included in the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), published by the American Psychiatric Association.

“There’s always going to be a lot of controversy surrounding the behavioural addictions as opposed to…drug addictions, because when we ingest cocaine or alcohol or heroin, it actually gets into our bloodstream and has an impact on our neurons,” Hellemans said. “That said, gambling is a very significant addiction that involves no substance.”

“I do think that there are aspects of the kinds of behaviours we see with the people who spend a lot of time of the internet that resemble what we see in drug addiction,” she said. Such behaviours include anger, withdrawal symptoms, and anxiety.

A need for consensus

A study by the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse found there was a lack of data on internet addiction, which hinders the process of resolving the issue

“This relative ignorance also extends to treatment,” the study said. “The few published treatment studies for internet addiction are based on interventions and strategies used in the treatment of substance use disorders.”

Researchers from the Clinical Psychology Review argue the lack of research can produce distorted outcomes.

“Although it is well established that a significant number of individuals report psychological problems associated with excessive internet use, the extent and severity of these problems may be somewhat overestimated because of the relatively low methodological quality of many studies in this area,” they said.

“Most studies have utilized inconsistent criteria to identify internet addicts and/or have applied recruitment methods that may have cause serious sampling bias.”

A general consensus on internet addiction will help classify and treat the problem, Hellemans said.

“I think we need to…have a way where we’re recognizing the five per cent of the population that truly have something interfering with their day-to-day life. It’s important that we are able to identify them.”

Story Produced by Ebony Griffin

Kim Hellemans: What to do if you think you have an internet addiction


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