Internet addiction: What is it doing to teen brains?


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Internet addiction is the problematic and compulsive use of the Internet that results in significant impairments in an individual’s functioning in various aspects of life, including social, occupational, and academic domains.

Internet addiction is becoming a global problem. Individual screen time averages have risen to around three hours a day. Many people declare their internet use to be “compulsive”. In fact, over 30 million of the UK’s 50 million internet users acknowledge that their compulsive and habitual internet use is negatively affecting their personal lives by disrupting relationships and neglecting responsibilities.

Teenagers addicted to their Internet-connected devices are at significant risk alterations in your brain functionwhich worsens addictive behaviors and hinders normal development. Internet addiction, driven by uncontrollable impulses, disrupts development, psychological well-being and all aspects of life: mental, emotional, social and physical.

A study by UCLA scientists identified extensive changes in young brains, especially in children ages 10 to 19. A ten-year study, which concluded in 2023, collected the results of 237 adolescents who had been officially diagnosed with Internet addiction.

Screen time: Teenage girl looking at social media on a smartphoneScreen time: a teenage girl watches social media on a smartphone
Teenagers addicted to their Internet-connected devices show significant alterations in their brain function, worsening addictive behaviors and impeding their normal development. (© Monkey Business – stock.adobe.com)

Effects on brain function

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the scientists examined different areas of the brain and various types of brain function Both at rest and during task performance, some parts of the brain showed increased activity and others decreased activity. The most significant changes occurred in the connectivity of the part of the brain that is critical for active thinking and decision-making.

Changes in brain function manifest as addictive behaviors and deterioration of physical and thinking abilities. The still immature brains of adolescents underwent changes that negatively affected intellectual function, physical coordination, mental health, development, and general well-being.

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The brain is at a particularly vulnerable stage of development in adolescence. It is more susceptible to compulsions associated with the Internet. Some of the compulsions were endless mouse clicking and consuming social media. The damage can be profound, with dire consequences. It can manifest as problems maintaining relationships, lying about online activities, and altered eating and sleeping patterns. Sleep disruption interferes with daytime concentration and chronic fatigue.

Brain function is not the only thing that is altered in adolescents addicted to the Internet. Anxiety, depression, and social isolation are serious consequences of your irresistible compulsions. Other major concerns are cyberbullying and exposure to inappropriate material, which cause emotional distress and a distorted perception of reality.

Physical health deteriorates because the addicted teen is sedentary, leading to weight gain, obesity, and related health conditions. Social skills suffer so much that face-to-face engagements are problematic. The teen does not “outgrow it.”

Teen behavior experts admit that the Internet has significant benefits, but problems begin when computer use interferes with daily routines and responsibilities. Treatments could target specific regions of the brain or involve psychotherapy and family therapy to address the core symptoms of Internet addiction. In addition, educating parents about the signs of digital dependency could serve as a vital preventative measure, helping them manage their children’s screen time and impulsive behaviors more effectively.

The study does more than reveal the underlying brain changes caused by Internet addiction. It also emphasizes the need for proactive measures to mitigate its impact on adolescent health and development.

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