The irony of writing an article about the neuroscience of Internet addiction, while being a card-carrying member of the Millennial Generation, is not lost on me. Nevertheless, it is important that we examine the underpinnings of our generation’s collective Internet addiction as technology continues to become a bigger part of our lives.
The most basic definition of addiction is a compulsion to do a rewarding behavior despite the adverse consequences that it produces . For example, although the compulsion to binge-watch an entire season of House of Cards before midterms might bring you a lot of pleasure, it will have dire consequences on your GPA. This underlying compulsion to binge-watch shows on Netflix and browse Facebook is the result of the dopamine rush that we get from such activities. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that is associated with reward. Activities that produce a dopamine rush are associated with pleasure and people tend to seek out such activities in order to fulfill the innate desire for reward . Dopamine is involved in the underlying mechanisms of all types of addictions, including drug and gambling addictions [1, 2]. Although these particular addictions can lead to severe consequences such as jail time and bankruptcy, their underpinnings in the brain are eerily similar to those of Internet addiction.
Researchers have found that people who over-used the Internet had fewer dopamine transporters in certain parts of their brain, the biological equivalent of building up tolerance . They have also found that these people had white-matter tissue that was abnormally organized in areas that control attention and decision-making . Taken together, these findings indicate that our brains are rewiring themselves to respond to the innately pleasurable medium that is the Internet. Although the brain is a dynamic entity that reorganizes itself in response to many different stimuli, it is important to keep compulsive and addicting stimuli from reorganizing the brain to their benefit. Drug abuse and gambling compulsions reorganize brain chemistry in a way that worsens drug addition, and Internet compulsion does the same. Though Internet addiction, officially referred to as Internet addiction disorder, is not yet in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it is still estimated to effect up to 26.3% of American youths . As it becomes easier to connect to the Internet, it becomes important that we assess exactly how our brains are changing in response.
Taken together this data indicates that our brains are rewiring themselves to respond to the innately pleasurable medium that is the Internet.
Left unchecked, our generation’s Internet addiction could become a more serious problem. There are already cases of people neglecting their kids because of online games, or even dying due to starvation after spending 50 straight hours online . Although predilections to these kinds of addictions exist in many people, the rising number Internet compulsion cases points to a greater societal problem. Innovative therapies for this problem may spring up as the field of psychology reorganizes itself in the wake of modern technology, but for now the best bet is to unplug.