Internet addiction 'rots teen brains'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 January, 2012, 12:00am

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Too much time spent on the internet can damage a teenager's brain as much as taking alcohol or cocaine, researchers found.

Nerve fibres in the brains of teens addicted to the internet were less healthy than normal.

These nerves were in the white matter in the brain and spinal cord that helps the brain to communicate with the rest of the body.

Professor Lei Hao, of the Wuhan Institute of Physics and Mathematics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said last week that the study showed that too much internet use was related to brain damage.

Yet he said scientists still needed to measure how close the link was.

High-resolution brain images of the teens diagnosed with internet addiction disorder gave scientists clues as to where and how the damage took place.

'Internet overuse seems to be wearing out myelin, a coating on the neuronal fibres,' Lei 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 found that the damage to white-matter tissue was similar to that seen in addiction to such drugs as alcohol, heroin or cocaine.

Symptoms include weaker control of the brain's thinking processes, which can affect decision-making.

Hong Kong's Census and Statistics Department says the city has at least 4.3 million internet users.

While there is no city-wide data on internet addiction, reports suggest that about 200,000 teenagers and 200,000 adults could be addicted to the internet.

Concern groups have urged the government to provide more funding for treatment and recovery.

Hsu Siu-man, supervisor at the Youth Wellness Centre of the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups, said the centre handled 640 cases of addiction last year. Of those, 65 per cent were internet addiction cases.

One teenager spent a week in an internet cafe before police found him. His parents had reported him missing.

Hsu said the government should reconsider its provisions for treatment and recovery.

'The problem is now getting serious,' Hsu said.

The study shows that the more brain damage young internet addicts suffer, the less they are able to control their emotions or behaviour.

Lei said 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 effect on adults remains unknown.

In the two-year study, Lei's team compared 17 teenage internet addicts with 16 normal teens. The addicts came from the Shanghai Mental Health Centre's department of child and adolescent psychiatry.

Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, a consultant psychiatrist who teaches at Imperial College London, called the research 'groundbreaking'.

Are you caught by the web?

To find out if you have internet addiction disorder, check out these eight questions. If you answer 'yes' to the first five and to at least one of the remaining three, you are an internet addict.

1. Do you feel preoccupied with the internet (think about previous online activity, or look forward to the next session)?

2. Do you feel the need to use the net more and more to achieve satisfaction?

3. Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop internet use?

4. Do you feel restless, moody, depressed, or irritable when trying to cut down or stop your internet use?

5. Do you stay online longer than planned?

6. Have you risked the loss of an important relationship, job, educational or career opportunity because of the internet?

7. Have you lied to family members, a therapist or others to hide the extent of involvement with the internet?

8. Do you use the net as a way of escaping from problems or easing feelings of guilt, anxiety or depression?