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'iCrazy?' Newsweek research review links Internet use to mental illness

Just five hours a day online can qualify as an internet addiction

July 12, 2012

In Newsweek's "iCrazy" cover story this week, Tony Dokoupil explored the impact of a global addiction to the Internet on global cases of mental illness.

"Does the Internet make us crazy?" Dokoupil asks. "Not the technology itself or the content, no. But a Newsweek review of findings from more than a dozen countries finds that answers pointing in a similar direction."

Dokoupil examines more than a dozen studies from around the world linking Internet usage with addiction, depression, ADHD, and mental illness:  

  • Gary Small, the head of University of California-Los Angeles’s Memory and Aging Research Center, in 2008 scanned the brains of Internet newbies and then asked them to then spend five hours online over the course of a week. When they returned for another scan, "the naive subjects had already rewired their brains," Small wrote.
  • A 2012 Chinese study linked Internet addiction to a 10 to 20% shrinkage in gray matter in the area of the brain responsible for processing speech, memory, emotion, motor control, and other sensory information. It found that the more time spent online, the more the brain showed signs of "atrophy."
  • A parallel study that found the brains of Internet addicts contained "abnormal white matter" in the areas responsible for attention, control, and executive function.

According to Dokoupil, being labeled an "Internet addict" is pretty easy: one must log 38 hours a week online or just over five hours a day on computers at work, iPads, and smartphones. By that definition, "we are all addicts…by Wednesday afternoon, Tuesday if it’s a busy week," Dokoupil writes.

Even if Internet users choose to reduce that their web time, health experts say it could prove difficult because internet use has become a compulsion. Answering every "ping" gives us a "mini-reward" of dopamine, according to MIT media scholar Judith Donath.

Researchers are studying how that web addiction may lead to more severe mental illnesses. For example, Elias Aboujaoude—a psychiatrist at Stanford University School of Medicine—is studying how digital identities can contribute to dissociative identity disorder.

Some say it remains unclear whether there is any causal link between Internet use and mental disorders. Dokoupil argues that "it doesn’t matter whether our digital intensity is causing mental illness, or simply encouraging it along, as long as people are suffering."

"All of us, since the relationship with the Internet began, have tended to accept it as is, without much conscious thought about how we want it to be or what we want to avoid. Those days of complacency should end," Dokoupil concludes, adding, "The Internet is still ours to shape. Our minds are in the balance" (Dokoupil, Newsweek/The Daily Beast, 7/9).

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