Too much internet rots teen minds, study claims
Excessive internet use can be as damaging to a teenager's brain as cocaine or alcohol, a study by the Chinese Academy of Sciences concluded.
The findings caused an immediate stir around the world, with one British psychiatrist describing them as groundbreaking.
Magnetic resonance scanning on adolescents with internet addiction disorder (IAD) as defined by some psychiatrists showed that neuron fibres in the white matter in their brains were less healthy than normal.
White matter makes up part of the brain and spinal cord and facilitates communication between the brain and the rest of the body. The study found that spending excessive time online harms white matter tissue in a way similar to cocaine abuse.
Professor Lei Hao from the Wuhan Institute of Physics and Mathematics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences yesterday said the findings showed excessive internet use and brain damage were inter-related - although to what degree remained to be quantified.
The high-resolution brain images of the IAD patients gave scientists clues on where and how the damage took place.
'Internet overuse seems to be wearing out myelin, a coating on the neuronal fibres', he said. 'The myelin is electrically insulating with protective functions like the plastic coating over cables. When it is damaged, it may reduce the quality of signal transmission.'
Lei's team also found that the type of damage to white-matter tissues is similar to what had been observed in other forms of addiction, such as alcoholism, heroin dependence or cocaine addiction. The symptoms include weaker cognitive control, which can affect decision-making.
According to the census department in Hong Kong, there are at least 4.3 million internet users in the city. While there is no city-wide research data on the prevalence of internet addiction, various reports have suggested that about 200,000 teenagers, plus 200,000 adults, could be addicted to the internet.
Concern groups have urged the government to provide more funding to treatment and rehabilitation.
Hsu Siu-man, supervisor at the Youth Wellness Centre of the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups, said the centre handled 640 addiction cases last year. Of those, 65 per cent were related to internet addiction, Hsu said.
In one case, a teenager spent a week in an internet cafe before police found him after his parents reported him missing.
Hsu said the government should reconsider its provisions on treatment and rehabilitation. 'The problem is now getting serious.'
The study also shows that the more brain damage young internet addicts suffer, the less they are able to control their emotions or their behaviour.
Lei noted that the findings might not apply to adults because their brain structure was different. But he said that did not mean they would suffer less damage, although the actual effect on adults was unknown.
The research was conducted over two years, during which Lei's team studied 17 adolescent internet addicts and compared them with 16 normal adolescents. The young addicts were drawn from the Shanghai Mental Health Centre's department of child and adolescent psychiatry.
Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, a consultant psychiatrist at Imperial College London, said: 'This type of research ... is groundbreaking as it makes clear neuro-imaging links between internet addiction and other addictions such as alcohol, cocaine and cannabis.
'We are finally being told what clinicians suspected for some time now, that white-matter abnormalities in the orbitofrontal cortex and other truly significant brain areas are present not only in addictions where substances are involved, but also in behavioural ones such as internet addiction.'
Professor Gunter Schumann, from the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London, said similar findings had been found in video-game addicts.
China, with the largest and fastest growing number of internet users in the world, takes internet addiction very seriously. Last year a national survey by the China Youth Internet Association found that more than 24 million, or 14 per cent, of young people in mainland cities were internet addicts, while another 18 million showed early symptoms.
Xu Jialing, an office worker in Beijing, said that she was worried by the study because she spent at least 12 hours a day on the internet.
'A substantial amount of my work is carried out on the internet. After buying an iPad, much of my personal life happens online, too', she said.
The share of China's internet users who are teens, according to the China Internet Network Information Centre