We all know the world is a very different place today than it was 25 years ago. The internet has fundamentally changed the way people go about their daily lives. From boarding passes to QR codes on your phone, physical maps to Google Maps, and from the movie theaters to Netflix, people have changed the way that they live. Interestingly enough, there seems to be little research being done on the negative effects of the internet. We’re all familiar with the added benefits of being connected, and having access to the world’s information at our fingertips, but what about the alienation we feel when seeing friends do things without us? Or the information paralysis that we experience when we have too many options to choose from? The internet is extremely useful in many ways, but the dangers of overuse and addiction are not only possible, but extremely prevalent in our society.
In a recent paper by Masaru Tateno et al. on Japanese College students, they found that 22.8% of males and 28.0% of females screened positive for smartphone addiction. Smartphone addiction can be characterized as “excessive and problematic smartphone use and clinical features of behavioral addiction: preoccupation, compulsive behavior, lack of control, functional impairment, withdrawal and tolerance.” These symptoms are extremely similar to any other fixation with drugs. Neurologically, the same systems in your brain that fuel a drug addiction are also activated whenever an internet addict goes online. In other words, smartphone addicts are no different than any other addicts. If the internet were a drug, this high of an addiction rate would be an epidemic, yet we rarely talk about it.
Internet addiction is very real and has some serious side effects. When was the last time you checked your phone? Where is it right now? The biggest problem with internet addiction is the fact that we can get our drug whenever we want. It’s always within arm’s reach. That constant availability is changing the way that we think. It leads us to become more impulsive, have less self-control, and make worse decisions in our lives. These traits aren’t just appearing either, they are a result of our brains physically changing.
Zsidó et al. found that these changes are occurring because of our internet addiction. Their study aimed to differentiate between internet addicts, smokers, and healthy controls. Wanting to explore the relationship between these three groups, they took 30 internet addicts, 30 smokers, and 30 healthy controls to determine if there were any significant differences among them. The internet addicts were determined using a questionnaire prior to being included in the study. Measuring multiple disorders such as anxiety, depression, and impulsivity the researchers found some dismal results. The Beck Depression Inventory uses a numerical scale to measure feelings of depression ranging from normal ups and downs, to extreme depression. A healthy control’s Beck Depression Inventory was found to be 4.97, well within the normal range of 1–10. A smoker was found to be 8.33. Internet addicts had the highest score on the test, with an 11.13, a score indicating that they experience mood disturbance. These results were statistically significant, indicating that those addicted to the internet are much more depressed than those who are not.
Of course, there isn’t a way to tell if this is causal or not. Those who are depressed may just be more likely to use the internet on a daily basis. But there is some merit to the idea that the internet exaggerates depressive symptoms. We often find ourselves connected to everyone on the internet, yet in a world where everyone is connected, it often feels extremely lonely. Being able to see what every one of your friends is doing at any given time creates a fear of missing out. Constantly being reminded of trips or parties that you were not a part of creates a feeling of not being included. In a way, it seems that everyone is connected to each other more than you are. This can create extreme feelings of anxiety, and the research confirms this. The State and Trait Anxiety Inventory was used to assess any differences between these three groups. This test is used to determine feelings of anxiety on a numerical scale, where above a 40-point score is considered positive for anxiety. Healthy controls had a mean score of 34.6, which is well below the 40-point cutoff for anxiety. Not far ahead were smokers, who had a mean score of 38.88. However, internet addicts had a score of 45.53; a significantly higher score than their counterparts, and well above the cutoff for diagnosing anxiety. While again it isn’t clear if the internet is the only cause, it’s obvious that the internet contributes to our feelings of depression and anxiety.
Not only do internet addicts experience more depression and anxiety than their healthy counterparts, it turns out their brains are different as well. The researchers wanted to evaluate how thick the temporal lobes of each group were and assess any potential differences. They specifically looked at the temporal lobe because “cortical thickness measurements and trait impulsivity have been shown to have a distinct relationship in addicts compared to healthy controls.” They conducted an MRI scan on all of their participants and found that addiction was not only exhibited as behavioral symptoms, but also had distinct neurological effects as well. The thickness of the left superior temporal cortex was found to be significantly thicker in the healthy controls when compared to the internet addicts. When doing the same comparison between the smokers and healthy controls, this difference was not found. Why would internet users have a brain that was fundamentally different than a smoker and a healthy control? We all know the dangers of smoking and its vast carcinogenic effects, so why were their brains no different than non-smokers? The answer lies in the function of the temporal cortex. The “temporal areas are involved in audio–visual processing — a function that is frequently activated during screen media activity like computer and internet use. It has been suggested that long-term hyperactivity in such regions could lead to impaired auditory–visual abilities, language-processing impairment, and learning problems.” The addiction to the internet physically changed the brains of those affected. It is important to note that internet addiction was assessed using a self-reported survey. While the survey has been shown to be reliable for detecting addiction to the internet, it cannot protect against social desirability bias. We are not always honest when it comes to self-evaluation, which begs the question, aside from the self-reported internet addicts who were brought into the study, how many more who were disqualified have damage to their temporal lobes while being in denial of their addiction?
Changes to our natural brain are seldom good for us. More often than not, they can lead to many problems in our everyday lives. Unfortunately, sometimes these problems become too severe and unfortunately in the worst cases, result in suicide. A meta-analysis by Cheng et al. was done with 23 cross-sectional studies and 2 prospective studies totaling almost 275,000 people, seeking to investigate the relationship between internet addiction and suicide. What they found is consistent with other negative impacts of the internet. Individuals with internet addiction had significantly higher rates of “suicidal ideation, planning…attempts, and higher severity of suicidal ideation.” Even when they accounted for variables such as depression and demographic differences, the “odds of suicidal ideation and attempts were still significantly higher in the individuals with internet addiction.” So what does this all mean? We’ve known the benefits of internet usage for quite some time now, yet we are just uncovering the resulting negative side effects. The internet has given us many things that we enjoy, yet it is important not to forget the very real drawbacks it can have.
We’ve seen the prevalence of internet addiction among college students, as well as the higher rates of depression and anxiety associated with it. Unfortunately, these things also combine into something much worse, and can sometimes lead to a premature death. Internet usage is not going to go away. Its prevalence in our daily lives is only going to get greater and greater. However, we do have a choice. The internet does make us feel lonely. It creates feelings of missing out and exclusion. It leads us to believe that everyone is having fun without us. These feelings are all valid and real, but only to the extent that we buy into them. The problem with being so connected and being able to talk to anyone at any time creates a feeling of option paralysis. When you have all of the people you’ve ever had a lengthy conversation with as your Facebook ‘friends’, it seems as if there is an endless possibility of people to have a conversation with. With the knowledge that others have this same connection with you, these relationships can start to feel fake. What we can do instead is to make the first step. Reach out to people that are close to you. The internet is great for catching up with friends you haven’t seen in a while or those who live far from you, but we should all become better at reaching out to those who are still close to us and strengthening those relationships in person. There are obvious drawbacks to the internet, and over-usage can become a serious issue, but it is within our control to use it to help ourselves and to strengthen our mental-health and relationships, not degrade them.