Stuck in cyberspace? The hidden dangers of internet addiction

We are surrounded by cyberspace! Computers connect and help us in so many ways. We often take for granted all of the resources at our fingertips, at least until the power goes out! I’m enjoying the wonders of technology right now as I write this post on my computer and technology will allow you to read it. Technology is an amazing tool.

However, any tool can be used as a weapon. This same technology can be used for cyberattacks, cyberbullying, and even increased depression and anxiety resulting from too much negative news consumption. Too much screen time can horribly impact our relationships, health and mood.

How does this happen?

The immediate gratification from computers and mobile devices create a powerful reward loop that works something like this:

feel bored or unhappy → tap into internet or game → feel entertained/better

The reward pathways that light up in our brains when we use the internet are the same pathways that light up when we use alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs. Wow! Whether we use technology to escape bad feelings or just in a habitual way, risk factors for significant problems.

Taken to extremes, people can actually become addicted to the internet. There is scientific debate whether it’s truly considered a “mental disorder,” but we do know that psychological and social problems occur. Both China and South Korea identify internet addiction as a significant public health issue, and the United States is starting to take this issue more seriously as well.

How do you know if you or someone you love is addicted to the internet? A recent study describes signs, and you should consult a professional if you see:

  • “changes in mood,
  • preoccupation with the Internet and digital media,
  • the inability to control the amount of time spent interfacing with digital technology,
  • the need for more time or a new game to achieve a desired mood,
  • withdrawal symptoms when not engaged,
  • continuation of the behavior despite family conflict, a diminishing social life and adverse work or academic consequences” (Cash et al., 2012).

Parents know that kids need reduced screen time and lots of face-to-face, active interactions to thrive and grow. But at the same time, screens are all around us and the constant pull of notifications from emails, text messages, games and apps can leave us distracted and scattered. So how do we balance the benefit of technology with the hidden dangers of these amazing machines?

First and foremost, practice what you preach! If your phone is your constant companion, start being more mindful of how and when you use it. Specific tips for breaking digital addiction in our next post, so stay tuned!

– Dr. Lori Warner, Ph.D., LP, BCBA-D, Director, HOPE Center at Beaumont Children’s

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