Internet Addiction & the Teenage Brain

Computing and internet technologies are still relatively new. However, they have proliferated like few technologies before them. Barely two decades ago, 500 web pages existed, ballooning to 3 billion pages by 2000. Today, 38 billion webpages are estimated to exist (as sorted on Google and Bing), and statistics show a 566.4% growth worldwide in internet usage from 2000-2012. With this kind of growth and increased access to the World Wide Web, people can get easily lost in all the internet has to offer.

With anything that is new, it can take years to fully understand any consequences or repercussions. Some of the first studies concerning internet addiction and internet usage disorders were conducted in China in the early 2000s and described them as a problem among Chinese youth. They noted symptoms such as fainting, eating issues, depression, muscle weakness, and a preoccupation with the internet. These studies also noted the teenagers had a lack of control over internet use, problems with real-life relationships, and difficulties in school. In response to the information, the Chinese government created and tried various rehabilitation programs.

In the US, internet addiction disorder (IAD) and internet usage disorder (IUD) are still under some debate and are yet to be classified as true addictions, but they are recognized as impulse control disorders. A person’s inability to resist the urge to do something harmful to himself or others characterizes impulse control disorders. It is a broad category that includes substance addictions, eating disorders, and behavioral addictions – such as compulsive gambling. People with an internet usage disorder spend an excessive amount of time online to the extent that it lowers their quality of life. When deprived of the internet or a computer, they can experience withdrawal-like symptoms, feel distressed, and involuntarily move their fingers as if typing.

Taking a Closer Look

Past internet addiction research centered on psychological assessments to determine effects of excessive internet use on people. Newer research conducted in the last few years in China looked into the physical changes on the brains of 17 teens diagnosed with internet addict using MRI scans. Those scans were compared with those of 16 non-addicted people.

“In the IAD-diagnosed teenagers, the scientists found evidence of disruption to ‘white matter’ nerve [fibers] connecting vital parts of the brain involved in emotions, decision making, and self-control.”  Some behavioral impairment could be caused by such abnormal white matter structure. Other earlier studies had already showed abnormal white matter structure in the brains of those exposed to substances such as alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamine. This is significant as it reveals behavioral addictions may have the same damaging effects as seen in those with substance addictions.

Also important is the location – the orbitofrontal regions of the brain – of the abnormal white matter structures found in the substance abuse studies. The orbitofrontal regions of the brain are involved in the decision-making process and also may have a part in assessing reward/punishment expectations in a given situation. Processing expected rewards/punishments with actual results is an important factor in adaptive learning. The human brain continues to develop until a person is in his 20s. Because of this, behavioral issues and addictions in adolescents and young adults, like internet addiction, are important to diagnose and treat early to ensure proper and healthy development.

 Addressing Internet Addiction

Despite any debate, facilities in the US and abroad – including China, Taiwan, and Korea – have sprung up in order to begin dealing with the issue of internet addiction. Treatment varies from weekend retreats to more long-term stays, such as outdoor therapy programs.

For adolescents and young adults, the internet provides an escape because poor coping skills may have led them to use the internet to deal with their issues. Wilderness therapy provides structure where they can learn life skills while also having access to medical doctors, therapists, and psychiatrists. Individualized care through individual and group therapy help focus on each participant’s needs, issues, and motivations. Through this program, participants learn new concepts and ways to handle areas of challenge. Given these life skills, they are able to return home with a better ability to deal with the everyday stresses they may face, including how to manage internet usage problems.

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