ADDICTION TO DIGITAL MEDIA LOOKS A LOT LIKE ADDICTION TO SUBSTANCES
On both the behavioural and neurological evidence, internet addictions look a lot like substance abuse addictions.
Around the world, psychiatrists and counsellors have treated thousands of people for internet disorders. On a behavioural basis, the person with an addiction to streaming pornography or to texting is similar to a person with a substance addiction. The digital-dependent craves the next time he can play World of Warcraft, or must bring the phone to the dinner table to check her Facebook page and text messages. The anticipation of the next digital fix triggers a flood of dopamine and gives a high when there is a reward (Tommy texted me). Excessive use leads to diminished rewards, so more gaming, porn, texting or surfing is needed to satisfy. Being without a phone or tablet leads to anxiety, irritability and compulsion. Other parts of life are neglected for time with the screen. The stop signs are ignored and the behaviour continues.
Digital stimuli have very similar effects on the brain as do substances. Cocaine addiction has the closest neurological signature of any substance to the digital signature, because cocaine (and crack) stimulate dopamine release. In addition to the reward system being hijacked, several studies have shown a decrease in Grey Matter Density, notably in the prefrontal cortex and other regions whose function is to evaluate choices and exercise control over impulses. Perhaps most troubling is the decrease in White Matter Density. White matter is myelin, a fatty sheath around neurons that increases your brain’s speed (think of it as bandwidth) by a factor of up to 300.
In 2001, the first proof that substance addiction causes deterioration of myelin was published. More recently, similar observations (using scanning technologies) have been made of the brains of excessive gamers, social media devotees, surfers and porn consumers. This means that the connectivity of affected parts of the brain is decreased. Thinking is slowed and in some ways impaired.
Where the impairment occurs is cause for worry. Myelin is reduced in portions of the prefrontal cortex (your thinking cap) that are important for controlling emotion and aggressive behaviour and for controlling impulses.
Another similarity: substance and digital addictions are associated with the same set of associated disorders. These include depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar disorder and, in extreme cases, psychosis. There are also cognitive and developmental disorders associated with digital addiction. Briefly, studies show impairments in attention, concentration, impulse control, reading ability and social skills. See Cognitive and Learning Impairment.