Research Shows Why The Internet Is So Addictive

Do you ever catch yourself staying up past your bedtime, scrolling through social media posts, watching videos, or reading your favorite blogs?

You aren’t alone.

Many internet users feel as though they are at least mildly addicted to the web, and that they become anxious and irritable when separated from their phones.

What is internet addiction?

The American Psychiatric Association hasn’t yet included internet addiction as a disorder in their official diagnostic manual (the DSM), but they are working to conceptualize it as a disorder similar to pathological gambling and substance abuse.

Also known as Compulsive Internet Use (CIU) or Problematic Internet Use (PIU), internet addiction is associated with the following symptoms:

  • A feeling that you have lost control over the amount of time you spend online;
  • A need to spend increasingly large amounts of time on the internet;
  • A loss of interest in your usual hobbies;
  • Feelings of distress when you don’t have easy access to the internet;
  • General feelings of moodiness, anxiety, and depression;
  • A negative impact on your relationships as a direct result of your internet use, for example, you may prefer to spend time online than go out with friends;
  • Problems at work or school as a result of excessive time spent online.

According to Mental Health America, approximately 6% of the population are addicted to the internet.

How the human brain responds to the internet

When we read or watch something interesting online, our brains release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that triggers feelings of pleasure and satisfaction.

In isolation, this isn’t an issue; it is normal to experience a dopamine rush after eating and engaging in other healthy activities.

The problem comes when someone uses the internet so often that they become dependent on the dopamine release to feel good.

As the addiction intensifies, the internet becomes more pleasurable than more mundane activities.

The neural pathways underpinning the dependency become stronger in the areas of the brain responsible for reward and motivation.

When an internet addict tries to cut down on their usage, their lowered dopamine levels cause unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety.

To make themselves feel better, they resume their online activities.

Compulsive internet use is linked with reductions in grey matter

Research indicates that problematic internet use is linked with structural changes to the brain.

For example, neuroimaging studies show that online gaming addiction is associated with decreased volumes of brain tissue in areas responsible for impulse control, emotional regulation, and decision making.

These changes make it more difficult to plan, and adhere to, self-imposed limits around gaming and general internet use.

These results suggest that neurological changes might cause someone to be more vulnerable to internet addiction, but most studies are correlational rather than longitudinal.

Psychologists know that internet addiction is often accompanied by changes to the brain, but they are not yet certain whether addiction causes changes, or changes cause addiction.

Internet addiction could also have a genetic basis

Psychologists have long known that addiction and mental illness tends to run in families.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, internet addiction could also have its roots in an individual’s genetic profile.

To investigate this possibility, a group of German researchers interviewed 843 people about their internet use, and tested them for the presence of a genetic marker that is associated with nicotine addiction.

People with this marker were more likely to suffer internet addiction.

These results are important for two reasons: First, they lend further credence to the idea that internet addiction has a neural basis, and second, that genetic variation can result in an addictive personality type that is vulnerable to addiction in general.

We do not yet have gene therapy for addictions, but this research may one day form the basis for this kind of treatment.

What can you do if you suspect you have an internet addiction?

Reducing CIU can be a difficult process.

Some people report that sudden withdrawal is easier than gradually cutting back on their internet use.

The best solution is the one that works for you.

If you choose a gradual approach, start by recording how much time you spend online every day.

You can use apps that monitor how long you spend on the internet, which makes gathering this information easy.

You can then set yourself targets, eventually limiting your use to one or two hours per day.

Structuring your time to include engaging hobbies – preferably those that require you to get out of the house – can make withdrawal less painful.

Asking others to hold you accountable, working through to-do lists of neglected tasks, and rewarding yourself for staying off the internet for a predetermined length of time can also help you develop a healthier relationship to the web.

If it feels as though the internet is taking over your life, consider seeking help from a professional counsellor.