Internet addiction may cause chemical changes in the brain, much like the way addiction to alcohol or gambling does, a new study out of the Chinese Academy of Sciences found. The study looked at 35 people who took a questionnaire, half of whom were identified as suffering from internet addiction.
The internet addiction subjects, who ranged from the ages of 14-21, underwent an MRI to look at the nerve fibers in the white matter of their brain, which contain abnormal connections in people suffering from gambling and alcohol addiction. What the study found was that internet addicts had the same abnormal connections, meaning that their brains underwent a similar chemical change to those who have other addictions.
However, the researchers are quick to admit that these findings are preliminary, and that there were limitations to the study. The diagnosis of [internet addiction] was mainly based on results of self-reported questionnaires, which might cause some error classification, the researchers said in their study. Therefore, the diagnosis of [internet addiction] needs to be refined with standardized diagnostic tools to improve the reliability and validity. In addition, the researchers cited the fact that the participants were not screened for other psychiatric conditions which could cause the abnormal connections, and also cited the small sample size.
NHS Choices, the website of the U.K. National Health Service, said that the limitations of the study mean that the study is not conclusive. From this study we cannot rule out the possibility that the participants' brains were structured this way before their heavy internet usage. If this were the case it would raise the possibility that their brain structure was responsible for their actions rather than their actions altering their brain structure.
The researchers are confident, however, that there is a causal link, and stress the need for further studies.
Just spending hours on Facebook, however, doesn't mean that you're suffering from internet addiction. The study's questionnaire had eight yes or no questions:
1) Do you feel preoccupied with the Internet (i.e., think about previous online activity or anticipate next online session)?
2) Do you feel the need to use the Internet with increasing amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction?
3) Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back or stop Internet use?
4) Do you feel restless, moody, depressed, or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop Internet use?
5) Do you stay online longer than originally intended?
6) Have you jeopardized or risked the loss of a significant relationship, job, educational or career opportunity because of the Internet?
7) Have you lied to family members, a therapist or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the Internet?
8) Do you use the Internet as a way of escaping from problems or of relieving a distressed mood (e.g., feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, and depression)?
Participants who answered yes to items 1-5, and to at least one more of the remaining questions, were classified as suffering from internet addiction.