Internet Use and Mental Health

Recently, a somewhat provocative issue of Newsweek hit the stands.  The title on the cover page read "Is the Web Driving Us Mad?"  

Questions about the relationship between internet use and mental health issues have been present throughout the relatively short history of the internet.  Many mental health professionals have been quick to point out ways that reliance on email and text chat have decreased face-to-face interactions and could affect our emotional well-being.  

At the same time, others use the internet as an alternate method for providing therapy via text chat or video conferencing.  In fact, some programs have experimented with using massively multiplayer games like Second Life to teach social skills to individuals on the autism spectrum with promising results.

So what does the research actually say about the issue?  

In some ways, the results have led to significant concerns about the influence of the internet on mental health.  Although many have been skeptical, the idea that the internet can be harmfully addictive has been spreading.  The next version of the American diagnostic manual for psychologists and therapists will include "internet addiction" as a disorder needing further study.

One particularly interesting research finding comes from a UCLA study done by Gary Small.  Two groups of study participants - those who use the internet regularly and those who do not go online at all - were given MRI scans.  These scans allow researchers to see what parts of the brain are active while being studied.

Small and his colleagues found clear differences in the brains of individuals who use the internet regularly and those who do not. Individuals who did not use the internet were then asked to spend 5 hours a day using it for the next week.  They were given new scans at the end of the week.  Even in such a short period of time, changes in their brains were observed.

While this is compelling and sounds concerning, there are a lot of limitations in understanding what the significance of this study may actually be. The study only included a handful of participants, all of whom were over the age of 55. It’s difficult to then take this result and extend it to children or younger adults.

Other studies have also suggested that internet use triggers our brains in a way that is very similar to the ways that drugs and alcohol trigger the brain.  When we get a text or earn a level in our Facebook games, the reward triggers a small rush of dopamine, the chemical in the brain responsible for “good” feelings.  These dopamine reward pathways are also triggered by drugs, alcohol, gambling, and all sorts of destructive behaviors. But they are also triggered by small things like interacting with friends or eating chocolate cake. While the research is not exactly clear on the real impact of internet use, it is important to be aware of these effects.

A growing collection of studies has also associated larger amounts of web use with feelings of depression, even years later.  And those who are depressed appear to spend more time online than their non-depressed peers.

The question then is - which came first?  The internet use or the tendency to depression or addiction?  More research is needed to tease apart this issue.

So what does this all mean?

Despite limitations in the research, the current findings should make us all pause and ask ourselves how much our internet use is affecting our daily lives.  The internet has clearly become a very useful tool for gathering and storing information, streamlining communication, and for making connections with others.  The internet has become such a vital part of the culture today that it really isn't practical to suggest simply disconnecting.

However, it is important to watch our own use and moderate it as much as possible.  Keeping track of time spent online can be eye-opening.  Challenging ourselves to check Facebook or email less often can also be an eye-opening challenge.  For any activity, it is often good to ask ourselves, "what value does this add to my life?"

If you struggle with reducing your time on the internet or if you find that your internet use is a part of a larger issue, then talking with a qualified mental health professional may be a good step to finding a solution and improving your life.