Teen Internet enthusiasts, beware: Your Web surfing habit might be rewiring your brain.
For nearly two decades, psychiatric experts have debated whether to diagnose die-hard Web users as veritable junkies, who get their fix from the ’Net rather than illicit substances.
Now, in research that could take Internet addiction disorder from fringe condition to mainstream medical problem, scientists have concluded that the brains of teenagers who use the Internet excessively exhibit dramatic structural changes similar to those of hardcore drug addicts.
Motivated by mounting concerns about Internet dependency among teens in Asian nations — in China, an estimated 14 percent of teenagers are deemed “Internet addicts” by the country’s Youth Internet Association — researchers in China and the U.S. teamed up to conduct brain scans on 36 college students.
Half the students were self-professed Internet addicts, often playing online games for 10 hours a day, while those in a control group spent fewer than two hours a day online.
Brain scans revealed shrunken brain regions among Web addicts compared to low-key online users. In some instances, regions were 10 to 20 percent smaller — and the atrophying occurred in many of the same areas vulnerable among “heroin dependent individuals and cocaine users.”
“There are brain changes being found in most addiction studies,” Dr. Kimberly Young, one of the first researchers to lobby for recognition of Internet addiction disorder and founder of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery, told The Daily. “So it makes sense that Internet addiction would follow the same outcome.”
Young has long suspected that Internet addiction was a significant mental health problem: In 1998, she developed a questionnaire that has become the go-to diagnostic tool for Internet addiction researchers. Questions, including “How often do you fear that life without the Internet would be boring, empty and joyless?” and “How often do you check your email before something else you need to do?” are designed to parse out conventional Web users from obsessive ones.
Brain scans could further refine her work. While the long-term implications of such structural changes to cognition are unknown, researchers speculate they could include reduced inhibition, diminished goal-setting ability, poor impulse control and impaired memory.
“The brains of Internet addicts are literally not functioning at full capacity anymore; those tiny structural changes involve hundreds of thousands of neurons,” Dr. Timothy Fong, director of the Impulse Control Center at UCLA, told The Daily. “Maybe they want to stop — but this damage makes them vulnerable to keep engaging in the damaging behavior.”
A study out of the University of Maryland, published last year, found that students asked to abstain from the Internet for 24 hours described their feelings in terms akin to substance addiction: “In withdrawal ... extremely antsy ... miserable.”
“I clearly am addicted and the dependency is sickening,” an anonymous study participant said. “I feel like most people these days are in a similar situation ... unable to shed their media skin.”
Until now, a dearth of concrete evidence led experts to dismiss the legitimacy of a diagnosis of Internet addiction disorder, or IAD. Rather, they deemed obsessive, Internet use a means of self-medicating for other mental health problems, like depression and social phobia.
Reluctance to acknowledge IAD has made diagnosis and treatment a challenge for therapists: Because the ailment isn’t included in the “bible” of mental health problems, the DSM-IV, there’s no universal diagnostic criteria, and insurance doesn’t cover treatment.
“I’ll have a patient who is suffering, whose family is suffering,” Fong said. “I need them to get reimbursed so they can get treatment.”
But outside of research institutions, most counselors aren’t trained to provide adequate care.
“Therapists from all backgrounds are seeing patients with this problem ... and they don’t know how to deal with it,” Young said. “I see patients who have seen two or three psychologists, who didn’t have a clue what Internet addiction was.”
Despite the study’s startling findings, some neuroscientists suspect that because some brain regions among heavy Web users also demonstrated atypical growth, minds might be adapting rather than atrophying.
“Our brains grow wildly until our early teens, then we start pruning and toning areas to work more efficiently,” Dr. Karl Friston at the University College London told Scientific American. “So these areas may just be relevant to being a good online gamer, and were optimized for that.”
Most experts, however, simply want to see more research — largely to determine whether sufferers are born with vulnerable brains or develop them through addictive behaviors.
“Fundamentally, I think it’s the same overarching disease as drug abuse, or gambling — but to become its own disease, we’d need to know what exactly makes this unique,” Fong said. “It begs the question: Are they born this way, or does clicking that mouse, over and over, become toxic to the brain?”