Internet addiction alters brain chemistry in young people, study finds | Internet

Young people with internet addiction experience changes in their brain chemistry which could lead to more addictive behaviours, research suggests.

The study, published in PLOS Mental Health, reviewed previous research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine how regions of the brain interact in people with internet addiction.

They found that the effects were evident throughout multiple neural networks in the brains of young people, and that there was increased activity in parts of the brain when participants were resting.

At the same time, there was an overall decrease in the functional connectivity in parts of the brain involved in active thinking, which is the executive control network of the brain responsible for memory and decision-making.

The research found that these changes resulted in addictive behaviours and tendencies in adolescents, as well as behavioural changes linked to mental health, development, intellectual ability and physical coordination.

The researchers reviewed 12 previous studies involving 237 10- to 19-year-olds with a formal diagnosis of internet addiction between 2013 and 2023.

Almost half of British teenagers have said they feel addicted to social media, according to a survey this year.

Max Chang, the study’s lead author and an MSc student at the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health (GOS ICH), said: “Adolescence is a crucial developmental stage during which people go through significant changes in their biology, cognition and personalities.

“As a result, the brain is particularly vulnerable to internet addiction-related urges during this time, such as compulsive internet usage, cravings towards usage of the mouse or keyboard and consuming media.

“The findings from our study show that this can lead to potentially negative behavioural and developmental changes that could impact the lives of adolescents. For example, they may struggle to maintain relationships and social activities, lie about online activity and experience irregular eating and disrupted sleep.”

Chang added that he hoped the findings demonstrated “how internet addiction alters the connection between the brain networks in adolescence”, which would then allow early signs of internet addiction to be treated effectively.

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He added: “Clinicians could potentially prescribe treatment to aim at certain brain regions or suggest psychotherapy or family therapy targeting key symptoms of internet addiction.

“Importantly, parental education on internet addiction is another possible avenue of prevention from a public health standpoint. Parents who are aware of the early signs and onset of internet addiction will more effectively handle screen time, impulsivity, and minimise the risk factors surrounding internet addiction.”

Irene Lee, a senior author of the research paper also based at GOS ICH, said: “There is no doubt that the internet has certain advantages. However, when it begins to affect our day-to-day lives, it is a problem.

“We would advise that young people enforce sensible time limits for their daily internet usage and ensure that they are aware of the psychological and social implications of spending too much time online.”

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