About Internet Addictions About Internet Addictions


We use the term “addiction” because that is the term most people search for and we want you to find us. At CHIU, we don’t use the term “addict.” An addiction is just one feature of a person’s current make-up. In our clinic we use terms like “problematic use” and “dependency”. We help our clients understand they are not the problem; the problem is the problem.

TAKE THE INTERNET ADDICTIONS TEST (author Dr. Kimberly Young). Scoring higher than 50 points on this test indicates unhealthy internet use.


Addiction occurs when relatively primitive parts of our brain are over-stimulated. Nature equipped us with a reward system that propels our drives to feed ourselves and reproduce. The primary components of this system are shown in Figure 1. The system is actually more complex than shown, but the simplified picture shows that pleasure impulses originate in primitive (in evolutionary terms) parts of the lower brain and send messages to the limbic system (pleasure centre) and striatum in the mid-brain and to the frontal cortex, the most recent addition to the mammalian brain. Our reward system is also involved in reactions to stimuli, including our fight, flight or freeze response, which explains the connection to the striatum, which is involved in prompting motion (flight). Signals are sent to the prefrontal cortex, which has command power. That is where we make decisions about how to respond to stimuli and, importantly, whether or not to do something. This is the seat of our control over impulses. In addiction, this “braking system” is weakened, reducing ability to say no to the addiction. A circle of increased need and weakened resistance makes fighting addictive behaviour doubly difficult.

Figure 1
how addictions effect the brain

The brain is composed of billions of neurons. They communicate via electro-chemical impulses that are regulated by neurotransmitters. The primary neurotransmitter in the reward system is called dopamine. It does act in some ways like dope or a drug. When you feel a rush of pleasure from the thought of a meal, sex or even a sunset, a flow or flood of dopamine is firing up neural pathways and stimulating the impulse to enjoy, have another fix or idolize your partner.

Keep in mind that the reward system is designed to make us want to eat and mate, requirements for survival. Addictive substances overwhelm the reward system. They are a super-stimulus that takes the system prisoner. Repeated exposure to substances creates a condition called excitotoxity. In deep addiction, the substance is valued more than food or sex. Cravings and withdrawal effects are the dopamine system saying “give me more.”


Psychologist have two ways of diagnosing addiction. The first is behavioural. Clinicians will diagnose addiction based on 6 behaviours.

Craving: preoccupation with the agent of addiction
Mood modification: there is a pleasurable reward (often with a price)
Tolerance: repeated use requires larger amounts of the agent to achieve a high
Withdrawal: psychological and physical distress when the agent is withdrawn
Conflict: the user wants to stop but can’t; quality of life is compromised
Relapse: withdrawal symptoms and depression over harmful effects of addiction drive the user back to what gives momentary pleasure or relief.

The second method for diagnosing addiction is the neurological signature they leave. The signature for substances — alcohol, amphetamines, cocaine and opioids — are similar. Changes in the volume of dopamine and other neurotransmitters, along with increases or decreases in the number of their receptors, are attempts by the brain to adjust to psychotropic (mind altering) substances. There are also changes in the activity level of brain systems that inhibit impulses. There are reductions in the volume of grey and white matter in these systems. The addicted brain is trying to compensate for the flood of neurochemical stimuli. Evolution has not equipped our brains to combat repeated injections of these hyperarousal substances. Our reward systems are hijacked and we crave the stimuli. At the same time, the parts of our brain that tell us to moderate our behaviour are weakened. That is why addictions are difficult to overcome.

The behavioural symptoms of addiction line up with what’s happening in the brain. Drug use (or whatever the addiction agent is) creates an appetite for the substance (or thrill), so we have craving. The substance feeds the craving by bombing parts of the brain with pleasure chemicals, creating a high. The brain, kidneys and liver try to compensate and make it more difficult for those pleasure chemicals to have their effect, so we build tolerance. We need more and more of the stimuli to get a buzz. When we try to quit, the brain and body scream for their candy.

Perversely, addiction weakens our ability to control impulses. In addition to creating an urge for something that is harmful, repeated substance abuse (or gambling or iPhone use) weakens the links between the frontal cortex (the manager) and the part of the mid-brain where addictions mess with neurotransmitters. Having another one becomes easier with use.



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.

excessive internet use causes fatique, poor health
Counselling Approach
About Addictions
Big Five digital disorders
How do we treat digital disorders?
Cognitive and learning impairment
Quality of Life



Public Engagement
Therapy for the Work Place