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Internet Addiction and the Wired Brain

Posted September 09, 2011 in Uncategorized

Before I begin, I’d like to acknowledge that I do recognize the irony of writing a blog about the harmful effects of the internet.

The internet and modern technology certainly seem to make life easier and more efficient, but the consequences of living in a wired world may be severe. A growing body of research is connecting excessive internet and technology use with major negative changes to our cognitive function, mood, emotion, overall health and the physiology of the brain itself.

Our brains are hard-wired to respond to the instant gratification, fast pace, and unpredictability of the internet and new technologies.  We are designed to be stimulated and direct our attention toward novel stimuli and change, which the internet and technology constantly provide. We never know when we’ll receive a tweet or email or what they will be about, or what we’ll find browsing the internet. There is a never ending stream of new, complex information entering our brains at all times, and this has fundamentally changed the way the modern brain works.

Recent studies are showing that the structure of our brains can actually physically change from excessive Internet usage. A study in China looked at brain MRIs of college students who spent about 10 hours a day online, and compared them to a control group who spent under two hours a day online. The heavy internet users had noticeably less gray matter, which is involved in muscle control, sensory perception, memory, emotions, and speech. Another study showed that multitasking on the Internet was associated with a diminished ability to identify emotions in pictures of faces. Other studies have found correlations between excessive internet use and ADHD, social anxiety, and depression.

The increased use of the internet and technology is linked to spending more time sitting and living a more sedentary lifestyle in general, both of which are associated with significant health consequences, such as reduced lifespan, higher incidence of major diseases such as heart attack  and stroke, as well as a faster decline in cognitive functioning.

Although there is still some debate, research is coming around to support the idea of “Internet Addiction” as a disease like drug or alcohol addiction. The behaviors and effects associated with being addicted to the internet or technology are very similar to those related to drugs or alcohol. The constant stimulation the internet provides can actually increase dopamine activity in the main pleasure center of the brain. People can develop tolerance, where the same amount of internet time that used to be satisfying no longer is, so more is required to get the same effect. Heavy internet users who quit “cold turkey” can actually have significant withdrawal symptoms, including physical tremors, anxiety and mood swings. Internet addiction can cause affective changes such as depression or irritability. Furthermore, heavy internet usage can disrupt social relationships. All of these are characteristic of the classical definition of an addiction.

As our world becomes more and more wired, it is important to take some time everyday to unplug. Turn off your blackberry and go outside, have a real face-to-face conversation or read a book. If the idea of being away from your technology fills you with a sense of dread, it may be a good time to kick the habit.  If you think you may have an addiction or problem with excessive internet or technology use, take this online test (irony noted) to see how you rank. If you need help, there are counselors who work specifically with technology addiction. Just Google it. No, seriously.

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