I always wondered what my small and -hopefully- insignificant obsession with the world wide web was. Why do I like the internet so much? I used to watch a ton, and I mean a ton, of YouTube. I’m in on all the drama over there. I wonder if I watched so much because I wanted to escape my reality or could it actually be the ‘fault’ of social media itself? I feel fine online, but on the other hand I wonder if it ‘prevents’ me to actually take a more ‘hands on’ approach. I decided to look deeper into these questions and this resulted in a series, which you can read weekly on my blog.
Is internet addiction real: the internet and its possible effect on the brain.
I do wonder what the difference could be between reading a book or reading online? Could there be a different effect on the brain? When I read a physical book I feel more relaxed. Could it be the holding of the book, the fact that your brain makes a connection through your eyes with an imminent object and not a shape-shifter like my phone that changes with every page? Do you experience a difference between reading a physical book, article or magazine and reading a blog for instance? I watched a video on social media (!) that social media could have a negative effect on memory and concentration. It was suggested that it could leave a profound effect on the brain. Maybe you did notice where you could read a book for a good two hours, you now get fidgety after 45 minutes? Or maybe you get slowly more and more of those days where you’re too tired to work on your projects after work?
When we talk about addiction, dopamine is the star of the show. All addictions show a quick rise of dopamine levels. Dopamine is mostly known as the ‘rewarding’ neurotransmitter. But it is also in charge of the ‘wanting’. Dopamine reacts strongly to unexpected positive things (positive as it could help us to survive). So when we accidently stumble onto something that enhances the chance of survival, dopamine learns us to repeat that behavior. And we survive, clever isn’t it? Even more clever is that dopamine levels starts to rise when we know a reward is coming. It’s the same thing as Pavlov described with his dogs. The dog gets rewarded with food. Then he rings a bell seconds before the dog gets the food and he observed that the dog would produce saliva when hearing the bell. The body responded, learned, that the bell means food.
Dopamine is not about pleasure but about the pursuit of happiness.
When dopamine receptors in the brain are bombarded by ‘likes’, the body likes to even that out. Equilibrium is the best way to go, in everything. So the dopamine receptors decrease in the brain. Less receptors, less pleasure. The more dopamine you ‘need’ to get the pleasure. As dopamine is also responsible for motivation and learning, motivation decreases too. We go looking for that one strong dopamine hit and we don’t do have the willpower anymore to do other things that give us less pleasure but are necessary for everyday living. The thing we ‘wanted’ in the beginning wins the race.
How does social media play into changing our brains?
The internet is new to our brain and we are curious about our surroundings. Being curious already creates a rise in dopamine levels. When we find new things, we are happy and we keep on searching. Would that not be the case, science would not even exist. Scrolling, swiping and clicking, it’s all novelty seeking behavior.
Here is where the problem lies, we click and we discover new information. Dopamine levels are high. We click again because maybe just a page further there might be that perfect picture you’re looking for for your post. And dopamine levels don’t get the chance to decrease again due to the never ending possibility of a reward. The anticipation is what get us hooked. The anticipation of that good feeling.
With social media the rewards are endless and the cues stem from within: feeling bored? I’ll read a blog, maybe I’ll learn something. Feeling sassy? Maybe I’ll go on Twitter, always drama over there. Feeling lonely? Let’s see if someone send me a mail or a message. Feeling funny? I’ll find the perfect gif to send to Pierre. And you get the gist here.
Just everywhere and at any given time, you can get that small hit of dopamine. As the loop to your dopamine centers gets stronger by using them more frequently, the loop to your prefrontal cortex is less visited and gets a bit dusty. The prefrontal cortex is where planning, willpower and motivational centers are located. A more active lifestyle so to speak. But as the road to willpower is less traveled by, it gets weaker and can’t compete anymore with the circuit of the dopamine centers. Constant novelty on a click, can cause addiction and change your brain.
What now, do we quit the internet all together?
Internet addiction is an impulse disorder  by which an individual experiences…
- intense preoccupation with using the Internet
- difficulty managing time on the Internet
- becoming irritated if disturbed whilst online
- decreased social interaction in the real world
To be honest …. I do check a few of the boxes. How about you? Do you experience these things?
If you answered yes on previous questions, there are some pointers on how to cope better with the net. Your phone is always in your bag or pocket to relief the boredom while waiting for the train. We respond to the situation. When we control the situation by checking the net at a set time, we are in control. Off course we can learn new things and discover but we need to let the dopamine levels decrease in order to relax. When we use the internet with a purpose and start with having a defined time for aimless scrolling, we will also learn how to deal with the net. The goal is here to have a balance between the dopamine centers and the prefrontal cortex. So you can spend more time to matters to you.
And you, how do you use the internet? Do you relate to this post? Do you limit your internet use or do feel it’s a all a bit blown out of proportion? Let me know in the comments, I’m happy to read them on my set time to read blogs.
 Tikhonov MN, Bogoslovskii MM. Internet addiction factors. Automatic Documentation and Mathematical Linguistics. 2015;49(3):96–102. doi: 10.3103/S0005105515030073.