Internet Addiction. Is it real?
According to Marc Potenza, a psychiatrist at Yale who is the director of the school’s Program for Research on Impulsivity and Impulse Control, addiction research first focused on substance abuse (Konnikova 2014). All addictions however are characterized by an inability to control how often or how intensely you engage in an activity even if it brings negative consequences to your life (Konnikova 2014). In substance abuse addiction there are real substances introduced into the body that have real physiological effects. Is Internet Addiction real if it doesn’t actually introduce anything into the body?
In Dr. Potennza’s 2014 review published in Can J Psychiatry journal he explores much of the recent research into a second type of addiction characterized not by substance, but by behaviour. Specifically he examines online behaviour addictions. Much like behavioural addictions in real life, the online form of activities such as gambling, shopping, sexual behaviors, and video game play may lead to compulsive engagement (Leeman, Potenza 2013). In the DSM-IV, the second most recent edition for diagnosis of mental disorders, excessive levels of these behaviors was categorized as “impulse control disorders not elsewhere classified” (Leeman, Potenza 2013). In the most recent edition, the DSM-V, compulsive gambling became officially recognized as an entry (Konnikova, 2014).
Addictions of behavior and substance are similar in that they affect sensitization to awards. Basically this means that addictive exposure of online gambling can make natural rewards less rewarding than they would have been in another person (Leeman, Potenza 2013). Further both these forms of addiction affect neurochemistry specifically in the dopaminergic neurons of the mesolimbic brain structure (Leeman, Potenza 2013). These neurons are important in the brain’s natural “reward circuitry”. High and low dopamine levels beyond the basal optimal ranges may lead to excessive substance use and impulsivity (Leeman, Potenza 2013).
There is also evidence for a genetic basis of behavioral addictions especially in gambling where behaviour was found to be highly heritable (Leeman, Potenza 2013). In Twin studies researchers found that genetic heritability accounts for 50-60% of the variance associated with addictive gambling.
Research on this topic has so far mainly used functional brain scans technologies such as PET and fMRI. In mostly young male subjects, compulsive game-players responded with more activity in brain activity in frontal areas, and the striatum compared to controls (Leeman, Potenza 2013). Further, these individuals have a reduced sense of loss in situations that normally should bring about loss (Leeman, Potenza 2014).
Looking beyond brain scan data, the research is less expansive. There has been some limited genetic research. Here, there is data to suggest that certain individuals within the population who have a specific allele variant of the DRD2 gene are more susceptible to compulsive gaming. The specific allele was correlated with higher self-reported reward dependence in male gamers (Leeman, Potenza 2013).
Currently in the DSM-V manual, video game addiction is classified as a “condition requiring further study”.
Konnikova, M. (2014). Is Internet Addiction a Real Thing? The New Yorker.
Leeman, R. F., & Potenza, M. N. (2013). A targeted review of the neurobiology and genetics of behavioural addictions: an emerging area of research. Can J Psychiatry, 58(5), 260-273.