How can we spend so much of our ever-diminishing sense of available time looking at what people are eating for breakfast?  Why do so many people want to know which cake best represents their life? What is it about the internet that gets to us?  When you consider that amount of time you lose when you are on the internet, it is not hard to imagine how some people might fall completely for its Pokemon-hunting, stock-trading and hilarious-cat-video charms.

In short, researchers are starting to believe that it’s novelty that keeps us clicking.  Scientists  believe that humans have an important primitive drive to seek out new things – new foods, new people and new adventures.  Our dopamine-fueled reward circuit in our brain affects much of what we do.  Primitively, it would drive us to seek out food, bonding, and mates for reproduction.  These drives are especially strong in teenagers and young adults.  New or novel foods and new possible mates are healthier for our species.  The internet provides many more novel experiences than any previous generation of humans have been exposed to in a lifetime and so appeals to out primitive brains very effectively.  We just seem driven to keep clicking through all the internet has to offer.

Since the first psychological studies about internet usage started to emerge in the late ‘90s, much effort has been spent trying to define what might be an addiction or problematic usage and what could be considered normal internet use.  Given that the internet is in most people’s homes and workplaces, most of us seem to manage it well and, indeed, benefit from the many wonderful ways it lets us interact with information, images, art, or communication.

The internet influences all of us in different ways.

Some, especially teens and young adults, can struggle to manage their use of the internet and get their lives completely out of balance to the point where it interferes with their relationships, work, school and health. While it is not yet listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (http://www.dsm5.org/Pages/Default.aspx) , there is a lot of evidence that problematic internet use works much like an addiction.  Some problematic internet use may be specific – gaming, porn, gambling or stock trading – or a general over use of the internet where a person demonstrates a preference or a reliance on virtual rather than face to face interpersonal communication.

Brain studies are really getting interesting and they are showing us that internet use can certainly look like other addictions in the brain.  They appear to support the hypothesis about the roles of the brain’s reward circuit and the way that dopamine and opiates are released in the brain.  During the teen years, our brain is very plastic and capable of learning much.  It is also seeking more pleasures and novelties as it accommodates the need for our species to survive.

Teens also don’t have a fully developed frontal lobe system that we require to override primitive urges.

Teens still need monitoring and help to solve problems.  They also need to know when their internet use is becoming a problem whether that be gaming, gambling or pornography.

There are many documented positives about internet gaming, but when the addiction is internet gaming, psychologists like to consider the all the possible contributing factors, including what might be going on in the young person’s family?  What is the young person chasing and getting from internet gaming that they are not getting in other places – companionship, respect, accomplishment, do they get to be a hero at home?

Internet gambling in young people can actually be strongly linked to their gaming….remember everything is just a click away.  Many online games give prizes (like “skins”) that can then be gambled on other sites for more game advantage or even money.

When it comes to internet porn, because it appeals to primitive sexual drives, young brains can be wired in certain ways as they learn both how “to do” sex and also “what turns them on”.  The images on the internet are so much faster to access and so much more novel than the girls at school.  Young people can click through millions of novel images very quickly and, if a certain set of images stop satisfying them, they are only a click away from something that is more intense and more exciting.  The concern is that many may be rewiring their brain to prefer sex with the internet to sex with real people and there are a large number of erectile dysfunction issues that are now being attributed to internet porn.  The good news is these can be treated and people can return to healthy functioning quite quickly.  However, those who started using internet porn at an earlier age, take longer to respond to treatment.

One of the problems we have in treating internet addictions is that it is really not realistic to have people go completely cold turkey or absolutely abstain from internet use.

We might want someone to upload their homework on the net or research for that assignment, but we don’t want them accessing pron or gaming sites.  In that way, it’s a little like compulsive eating.  We don’t want people to abstain from food, we want them to make better food choices.  However, the brain changes that can accompany internet addictions can make it hard for people to make these better choices on their own.  The other thing that separates the novelty offered by the internet to that provided by food is that we can keep binging on the internet.

With food we eventually get full or sick, even with illicit substances that make us feel good we might eventually pass out, but with the internet we can keep clicking.

Psychologically and socially, the internet is often used for escape. You can get lost in all sorts of amazing ways.  Time just disappears.

The internet can also seem to compensate for any deficits you think you have.  Some find it much easier to ‘speak’ to others on the internet rather than face to face.

When you are lonely, feel like you’re not worthwhile, or if you are suicidal, there are many kind people who will respond to you in all hours of the day or night from anywhere in the world.  Some of the kind people are well-intentioned.  Some are trying to meet their own needs and not all are well-intentioned!  We need to watch for young people using the internet in ways that might put them at risk as they try to compensate or escape problems.

When it comes to internet addictions, there are many ways that psychologists can help people to recover and the earlier treatment is sought, the better.  A good psychologist will examine the social factors, the psychological factors and the possible brain changes and individualise a treatment plan. CBT can be used to monitor peoples thoughts and beliefs about their use , work out which thought go with urges to use the internet and work out coping skills if a person in avoiding problems by spending time on the net.

It also helps to ……

  • First, remember that most young people will manage their internet use well and benefit from its many advantages.
  • Generally, have conversations with your young people about what they are doing on the internet – especially if they are asking for your credit card often or is you notice a significant change in their outlook. Most schools have capacities to monitor young people’s use of the internet provided at schools. However, internet accessed by phone is not something schools can monitor. It helps to have an agreement with a young person about how you will monitor them.
  • Educate young people and use the consequences that will get their attention – the idea that they may be on the way to erectile dysfunction will certainly be attention grabbing, but not in a “do it and you’ll go blind” kind of way – explain the science to them. Explain the healthy use of porn, that safe sex practices are underrepresented in porn and that porn is out of context of all-important relationships.  Make sure that the internet is not the young person’s primary source of education about sex.
  • Encourage healthy off-screen life and relationships. Devote time together, unplugged.
  • Ensure your young person has a range of stress management options. Stress can add to the further drive to seek stimulation from the internet.  Teach and make available other ways to manage stress.  Meditation keeps looking better and better with each new research article I read as it works on helping our frontal or more-adult parts of the brain strengthen to be able to manage urges.
  • If all of this seems too confronting, talk to other parents and educators about how they have these conversations with young people and how they monitor internet use.
  • If you see signs of addiction, get in early. If someone is truly addicted, there will very likely definitely be a quarrel when you mention time away from the internet.  Your GP can help with a referral to an appropriate psychologist and kids help line and parent help line can be useful in times of distress.