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Study Finds Internet Addiction May Cause Drug-Like Withdrawal



If you put a smartphone down after arriving home only to pick up a laptop, which you use for the remainder of the evening until you take a tablet computer to bed, you might jokingly refer to yourself as a technology addict. While other similarly hardwired friends and colleagues might laugh at the description, medical professionals have started taking technological dependency very seriously.

New research into the idea of “Internet addiction” has uncovered a potential link between the condition and an increased risk of depression and even the potential for drug-like withdrawal symptoms.

Published in the online journal PLoS One, a recent study of 60 adults living in the United Kingdom found that study participants who had the highest Internet usage experienced the biggest drop in mood following logging off the computer when compared to those who used the Internet the least.

When beginning their study, researchers at Swansea University expected to find an increase in the mood of participants following the use of the Internet due to the positive reinforcement using technology would provide. However, researchers were surprised to determine that following the use of technology and the Internet, study participants experienced an immediate increased negative mood and symptoms similar to withdrawal.

But as researchers began to examine the literature associated with excessive Internet use, they began seeing more connections that fit the description of an addictive disorder. Researchers now suspect that excessive Internet use may negatively impact a person’s physical and psychological health. This discovery suggests to researchers that some Internet users may need to examine their relationship with technology and what role it actually plays in their lives.

A New Condition

Only during the last decade has the concept of Internet addiction become widely debated among psychologists and within the medical community. Despite the relative infancy of the concept, Internet addiction is now regarded as a psychological disorder that researchers suspect may affect a large number of people.

The upcoming Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM-5), often referred to as the psychiatric bible, will include for the first time Internet Use Disorder as a condition in need of further study. The condition has linked Internet addiction to long-term depression, impulsive nonconformity, and with certain autism traits.

Withdrawal-Like Symptoms

In this particular U.K. study, a group of 60 adults with an average age of 24 underwent a number of tests to determine their Internet use, feelings, and moods, including the potential for depression or anxiety, and whether they exhibited traits for autism. After completing the test, the participants proceeded to get online for 15 minutes. After which they once again answered questions about their anxiety and mood levels.

Of the 60 participants, 32 were determined as problematic and/or high Internet users, and the remaining 28 were categorized as low users.

The study found that those in the high usage group exhibited a much bigger drop in mood following the use of the web than individuals in the low usage group. This led researchers to speculate that one of the reasons those in the high usage group were online so much was in an attempt to compensate for decreased mood.

In other words, the immediate impact of Internet withdrawal causes such a dramatic difference in mood that “Internet addicts” seek to feel better by rapidly re-engaging with the web. The negative impact on mood would then be considered as having the same effects on a person as drug withdrawal.

While the findings of this study need closer examination, comparable studies related to brain function have also found links that suggest excessive Internet usage could spell trouble for millions of people.