Internet Addiction Can Cause Brain Changes In Adolescents

Internet addiction negatively impacts social, academic and professional lives. In severe cases, people may experience physical pain, health issues and psychiatric problems.

AsianScientist (Jun. 22, 2024) – The east Asia and pacific region has the second-highest mobile internet adoption rate globally, following North America, Europe, and Central Asia. 71% of the region’s population uses mobile internet. Additionally, the proportion of the population connected to mobile internet with a smartphone had increased to 66% by the end of 2022. A recent study published in PLOS has revealed that adolescents suffering from Internet Addiction undergo brain changes that could contribute to addictive behaviors.

Internet addiction (IA) occurs when a person can’t resist the urge to use the Internet, which negatively affects their psychological well-being and their social, academic, and professional lives. The symptoms can have serious physical and interpersonal effects linked to mood and tolerance. In severe cases, people may experience physical pain or health issues like carpal tunnel syndrome, dry eyes, irregular eating habits, and disrupted sleep. Moreover, the link between IA and comorbidities with other psychiatric disorders is also significant.

In 2021, the global prevalence of IA was 3.05%, but Asian countries had a higher prevalence at 5.1% than European countries at 2.7%.

The researchers analyzed 12 studies that used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the interaction of brain regions in participants with IA. These studies looked at brain activity both during rest and while performing a task in 237 teenage volunteers in East Asian countries who had IA. Their goal was to observe the brain and any changes induced by this addiction, specifically changes in connectivity between brain networks that play an important role in behavior building.

The analysis indicates that IA impacts various neural networks in adolescents’ brains, raising activity in specific networks while reducing it in others.

This disturbance was specifically noticed during tasks involving attention, planning and decision-making in internet-addicted adolescents compared to participants without this addiction. The “Default Mode Network” areas in the brain, which become active when individuals let their thoughts drift without focusing on particular activities, exhibited both increased and decreased activity in the addicted participants.

These changes were found to lead to addictive behaviors and tendencies in adolescents, as well as alterations in intellectual ability, physical coordination, mental health, and overall development.

“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,” said Max Chang, lead author and MSc student, UCL Great Ormond Street Institute for Child Health.

He added that the study’s findings indicate that this could result in potentially harmful behavioral and developmental changes affecting adolescents’ lives. For instance, they might find it challenging to maintain relationships and social activities, be dishonest about online activities, and experience irregular eating habits and disrupted sleep patterns.

“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,” said Irene Lee, senior author, and data manager at UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health.

According to the researchers, the teenage brain is more likely to be influenced by Internet Addiction-related urges because of its structure and development.

The brain undergoes significant changes in its social and thinking abilities during adolescence. This period is marked by heightened sensitivity to social cues and peer connections, as well as the development of improved social skills. These changes are linked to increased connectivity strength in certain parts of the brain, leading to greater integration. The reorganization of synaptic connections and environmental cues also play a role in shaping neural networks.

While the specific mechanisms remain unclear, the researchers have highlighted that the observed changes in neural network activity have significant potential to impact various aspects of adolescents’ development.

“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 and impulsivity and minimise the risk factors surrounding internet addiction,” added Chang.

Source: UCL Great Ormond Street Institute for Child Health ; Image: Shutterstock

The article can be found at: Functional connectivity changes in the brain of adolescents with internet addiction: A systematic literature review of imaging studies

Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Puja is a multimedia journalist based in Kolkata, India. She writes about social justice, health, policy, LGBTQIA+ issues and culture.

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