Are You Addicted to the Internet?

By Lori Castle, Editor in Chief — September 18, 2012

Between work needs and home life, how much time do you spend online? Many people spend hours and hours and immediately start feeling bad if they are unable to do so.

Medically, this phenomenon has not yet been as clearly described as nicotine or alcohol dependency, but a study conducted by researchers from the University of Bonn and the Central Institute of Mental Health (ZI) in Mannheim now provides indications that there are molecular-genetic connections in Internet addiction. The results of their work was reported in the "Journal of Addiction Medicine" in August 2012.

"It was shown that internet addiction is not a figment of our imagination," says the lead author, Privatdozent Dr. Christian Montag from the Department for Differential and Biological Psychology at the University of Bonn. "Researchers and therapists are increasingly closing in on it."

Over the past few years, the Bonn researchers have interviewed a total of 843 people about their Internet habits. An analysis of the questionnaires shows that 132 men and women in this group exhibit problematic behavior in how they handle the online medium. All of their thoughts revolve around the Internet during the day, and they feel their well-being is severely impacted if they have to go without it.

Gene Variation
The researchers compared the genetic makeup of the problematic Internet users with that of healthy control individuals. This showed that the 132 subjects are more often carriers of a genetic variation that also plays a major role in nicotine addiction. "What we already know about the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor in the brain is that a mutation on the related gene promotes addictive behavior," explains Dr. Montag. Nicotine from tobacco fits - just like acetylcholine, which is produced by the body - like a key into this receptor. Both these neurotransmitters play a significant role in activating the brain's reward system. "It seems that this connection is not only essential for nicotine addiction, but also for Internet addiction," reports the Bonn psychologist.

Women More Affected
The actual mutation is on the CHRNA4 gene that changes the genetic makeup for the Alpha 4 subunit on the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor. "Within the group of subjects exhibiting problematic Internet behavior this variant occurs more frequently - in particular, in women," says Dr. Montag. This finding will have to be validated further because numerous surveys have found that men are more prone to Internet addiction than women. The psychologist assumes, "The sex-specific genetic finding may result from a specific subgroup of Internet dependency, such as the use of social networks or such."

Better Diagnosis
Dr. Montag added that studies including more subjects are required to further analyze the connection between this mutation and Internet addiction. "But the current data already shows that there are clear indications for genetic causes of Internet addiction." He added that with the mutation, a biological marker had been found that would allow to characterize online addiction from a neuro-scientific angle. "If such connections are better understood, this will also result in important indications for better therapies," says Dr. Montag.

Changing Brain Matter
In another study published in January 2012 in PLOS ONE, a peer-reviewed open-access journal, the authors said that “IAD is currently becoming a serious mental health issue around the globe.” While previous studies regarding IAD were mainly focused on associated psychological examinations few focused on brain structure and function about IAD. The abstract says: “In this study, we used diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to investigate white matter integrity in adolescents with IAD."

The researchers conclude, “Overall, our findings indicate that IAD has abnormal white matter integrity in brain regions involving in emotional generation and processing, executive attention, decision making and cognitive control. The results also suggest that IAD may share psychological and neural mechanisms with other types of impulse control disorders and substance addiction.”

It’s clear that the use of technology is affecting our biology and psychology as well. Long-term effects are untold, but the appropriateness of applying the word “addiction” to Internet use is still being debated. As research continues, Internet addiction rehab programs are being created. A Google search turns out plenty of “treatment” sites and centers.

Are you Addicted?

Once such site, www.netaddiction.com, was founded in 1995 by Dr. Kimberly Young, who is a recognized expert in the field. Among other things, she is known for “developing the first empirically-based treatment plan for Internet addiction.”

Dr. Young says, “It used to be that work was work and home was home. Now we have the ability to work 24 hours a day. There is never a real rest because it feels like work is never totally done. It can become clinical when we can’t make a separation.”

Many remote workers are home and Dr. Young says she often hears from them that they use email like an affirmation. “When you work alone, as plenty of mobile workers do, they actually crave the connection and are disappointed if emails don’t come frequently. An email is an acknowledgement that says ‘they know I’m here.’”

Mobility certainly enables productivity in the enterprise, but it can also be an inhibitor. If an employee is checking a personal Facebook page or email when they should be working, lots of time can be lost. Dr. Young says too much connectivity can make everything seem like a priority and she is increasingly working with businesses to address the issue of productivity in a mobile work environment

What to Do
The solution to being too connected is as simple as putting the phone down, but Dr. Young admits it takes a lot of discipline to do so. “You have to structure time to turn off all the noise. That means when you get home, you spend time without the mobile devices, without television, just talking to your family, cooking, whatever makes you happy, but is not electronic,” she says.

One easy suggestion she offers is charging the phone in a room different than where you are spending time. This helps eliminate the urge to check it repeatedly. Dr. Young says, “You need to work harder at taking a break from being connected. It will make your work more efficient in the long run. The parameters will be different for each person, but they must be set.”

Take the Test

The “netaddiction” site offers a self-test which helps assess if you are “already addicted or rapidly tumbling toward trouble.” Questions include:

  • How often do you find that you stay on-line longer than you intended?
  • How often do you prefer the excitement of the Internet to intimacy with your partner?
  • How often do others in your life complain to you about the amount of time you spend on-line?
  • How often do you lose sleep due to late-night log-ins?
Take the test here.

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