Recently, a somewhat provocative issue of Newsweek hit the stands. The title on the cover page read “Is the Web Driving Us Mad?” The full text of the feature article is available here for those interested in reading it.
Questions about the relationship between internet use and mental health issues have been present throughout the relatively short history of the internet. Many mental health professionals have been quick to point out ways that reliance on email and text chat have decreased face-to-face interactions and could affect our emotional well-being. Others use the internet as an alternate method for providing therapy via text chat or video conferencing. In fact, some programs have experimented with using massively multiplayer games like Second Life to teach social skills to individuals on the autism spectrum with promising results.
So what does the research actually say about the issue?
In some ways, the results have been much more bleak than many have expected. Although many have been skeptical, the idea that the internet can be addictive is beginning to gain wider acceptance throughout the world. The next version of the American diagnostic manual for psychologists and therapists will include “internet addiction” as a disorder needing further study.
The research finding that was the most compelling to me came from a UCLA study done by Gary Small. Volunteers who use the internet regularly and those who do not go online were given MRI scans. These scans allow researchers to see what parts of the brain are active at any given time. There were clear differences in the brains of individuals who use the internet regularly and those who do not.
While the differences are interesting, the next part of the study was quite sobering. Individuals who did not use the internet were asked to spend 5 hours a day using it for the next week. They were given new scans at the end of the week. Even in such a short period of time, significant changes in their brains were observed.
Studies have also suggested that the ways that internet use triggers our brains is very similar to the ways that drugs and alcohol trigger the brain. When we get a text or earn a level in our Facebook games, the reward triggers a small rush of dopamine, in a way that is like using street drugs. Chinese researchers have also demonstrated ways that the brain structure in individuals with an “internet addiction” is similar to those with addictions to physical substances.
A growing collection of studies has also associated larger amounts of web use with feelings of depression, even years later. And those who are depressed appear to spend more time online than their non-depressed peers.
The question then is – which came first? The internet use or the tendency to depression or addiction? More research is needed to tease apart this issue.
So what does this all mean?
Despite limitations in the research, the current findings should make us all pause and ask ourselves how much our internet use is affecting our daily lives. The internet has clearly become a very useful tool for gathering and storing information, streamlining communication, and for making connections with others. The internet has become such a vital part of the culture today that it really isn’t practical to suggest simply disconnecting.
However, it is important to watch our own use and moderate it as much as possible. Keeping track of time spent online can be eye-opening. Challenging ourselves to check Facebook or email less often can also be an eye-opening challenge. For any activity, it is often good to ask ourselves, “what value does this add to my life?”
If you struggle with reducing your time on the internet or if you find that your internet use is a part of a larger issue, then talking with a qualified mental health professional may be a good step to finding a solution and improving your life.