Kids spend an increasing fraction of their formative years online, and it is a habit they dutifully carry into adulthood. Under the right circumstances, however, a love affair with the Internet may spiral out of control and even become an addiction.
Whereas descriptions of online addiction are controversial at best among researchers, a new study cuts through much of the debate and hints that excessive time online can physically rewire a brain.
The work, published June 3 in PLoS ONE, suggests self-assessed Internet addiction, primarily through online multiplayer games, rewires structures deep in the brain. What's more, surface-level brain matter appears to shrink in step with the duration of online addiction.
"I'd be surprised if playing online games for 10 to 12 hours a day didn't change the brain," says neuroscientist Nora Volkow of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, who wasn't involved in the study. "The reason why Internet addiction isn't a widely recognized disorder is a lack of scientific evidence. Studies like this are exactly what is needed to recognize and sette on its diagnostic criteria," if it is a disorder at all, she says.*
Defining an addiction
Loosely defined, addiction is a disease of the brain that compels someone to obsess over, obtain and abuse something, despite unpleasant health or social effects. And "internet addiction" definitions run the gamut, but most researchers similarly describe it as excessive (even obsessive) Internet use that interferes with the rhythm of daily life.
Yet unlike addictions to substances such as narcotics or nicotine, behavioral addictions to the Internet, food, shopping and even sex are touchy among medical and brain researchers. Only gambling seems destined to make it into the next iteration of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, the internationally recognized bible of things that can go awry with the brain.
Nevertheless, Asian nations are not waiting around for a universal definition of Internet addiction disorder, or IAD.
China is considered by many to be both an epicenter of Internet addiction and a leader in research of the problem. As much as 14 percent of urban youth there—some 24 million kids—fit the bill as Internet addicts, according to the China Youth Internet Association. By comparison, the U.S. may see online addiction rates in urban youth around 5 to 10 percent, say neuroscientists and study co-authors Kai Yuan and Wei Qin of Xidian University in China.
The scope of China's problem may at first seem extraordinary, but not in the context of Chinese culture, says neuroscientist Karen M. von Deneen, also of Xidian University and a study co-author.
Parents and kids face extreme pressure to perform at work and in school, but cheap Internet cafes lurk around the corner on most blocks. Inside, immersive online game realities like World of Warcraft await and allow just about anyone to check out of reality.
"Americans don't have a lot of personal time, but Chinese seem to have even less. They work 12 hours a day, six days a week. They work very, very hard. Sometimes the Internet is their greatest and only escape," according to von Deneen. "In online games you can become a hero, build empires, and submerge yourself in a fantasy. That kind of escapism is what draws young people."
Out of sight of parents, some college kids further cave to online escapism or use gaming to acquire resources in-game and sell them in the real world. In a recent case Chinese prison wardens allegedly forced inmates into the latter practice to convert digital gold into cold-hard cash.