(The following excerpt from Is Surfing The Internet Addictive? by Susan Greenfield, Ph.D., recently appeared on psychologytoday.com. To view it in its entirety click on the link below.)
When Internet addiction was first proposed as a psychological disorder in the 1990’s1, it wasn’t taken too seriously. These days however, very few people would try to argue that there is no such thing as problematic or excessive Internet use. Hundreds of research studies have found evidence showing that between 1-10% of individuals experience problems controlling their Internet use and they display similar physiological, neurological and behavioural profiles of substance and gambling addicts. In 2014, the DSM (the psychologist’s handbook that details all the known psychological disorders) was updated, which proposed Internet addiction as a potential disorder that required further investigation.
But the really interesting question is: what exactly is an Internet “addict” addicted to? Some researchers argue that the Internet itself is not addictive, but rather the activities the Internet can be used for.2 There is evidence supporting task-specific Internet addictions, such as online video game addiction, online sex/pornography addiction, pathological online gambling, and social networking addiction, among others.However, there is a distinction that can be made between specific Internet addictions such as online gaming addiction and generalized Internet addiction.3
It seems that the experience itself of endlessly surfing the web, YouTube, and blogs can actually be addictive. New brain-imaging research in Germany has found changes in the brain linked specifically with this type of excessive, non-task specific Internet use.4 In male internet users, who reported using the Internet for 42 hours per week, those who displayed more symptoms of Internet addiction, such as experiencing more negative consequences of their internet use, feeling withdrawal symptoms when not using the Internet and an inability to control their internet use had less brain (grey) matter volume in an area of the brain known as the right frontal pole. This area of the brain is part of the prefrontal cortex, and under activation of the prefrontal cortex is strongly linked to poor decision-making, addictive behaviour and willpower. The study linked further differences in other areas of brain circuitry and excessive Internet use, and this overall pattern of difference associated with the brains of excessive Internet users resembles the changes in brain seen in substance addictions. As with all cross-sectional studies, the cause and effect is not clear. The brain changes may be due to excessive Internet use, but equally, brain volume differences could be a precondition for excessive Internet use.
Several studies have reported similar brain differences related to excessive Internet use however, previous findings have typically been linked to the specific task the excessive Internet user logs on for, such as online gaming.5 This study found that the link between reduced brain volume and excessive Internet use could not be accounted for by excessive online gaming, Internet sex use, or depression, indicating that excessive Internet use itself is also related to addiction-like brain differences. In any event, the findings suggest that such widespread changes might well be reflected in a different general mind-set.
What could be addictive about aimlessly using the Internet, to no specific end? Surfing the Internet could arguably be considered a form of information seeking, whether the question at hand is formed before we hit the Internet or whether it develops along the way. As we navigate the Internet, new information we weren’t even looking for pops up, and before we long we can be ten pages deep into Wikipedia, absorbed in reading about a new topic without even planning to be there. Finding new information, whether it is intentionally searched for or simply discovered, is a pleasurable experience for our brains. Alternatively, perhaps Internet use is simply and more generally a different type of existence, to that offered by the three dimensional, less compliant real world: above all, it is a world where whatever you do will elicit an instant response- unlike real life. And perhaps instant feedback is not just reassuring, but becomes a prerequisite for well-being.
A fascinating study recently published investigated how people react when it is just them and their brains. In a series of 11 experiments, researchers asked nearly 800 participants to simply sit and think or daydream by themselves for just 6 to 15 minutes.6 Surprisingly, for many participants, it was difficult. In two of the experiments where the option to cheat was available, 32%-54% of the participants admitted cheating by using their phones or some other distraction to pass the short period of time. In the most bizarre finding of all, participants were given the chance to give themselves an electric shock during their 15 minutes of thinking time if they desired. Despite all participants previously reporting they would spend money to avoid being shocked, a quarter of the female participants and two thirds of the male participants administered themselves an electric shock during the thinking time. The authors speculate that people would rather have negative stimulation rather then having no stimulation at all.
Interestingly, enjoyment of the task was not linked to frequency of social media use or smartphone use. The authors propose that the technology age, characterised by never-ending sources of information, is symptomatic of our inability to just be alone with only our thoughts to entertain us. It is the basic process of incessant interaction, be it positive or negative, which could well be what Internet addicts are actually addicted to.