When we think of addiction, most of us think of alcoholism or drug abuse. But the easy access, anonymity, and constant availability of the Internet, email, texting, chatting and twittering has led to a new form of compulsive and dependent behavior - techno-addicts. The same neural pathways in the brain that reinforce dependence on substances can reinforce compulsive technology behaviors that are just as addictive and potentially destructive. Almost anything that we like to do - eat, shop, gamble, have sex - contain the potential for psychological and physiological dependence.
Whether we're watching TV, playing an interactive video game, or simply searching online for an old movie title, our brains and other organs automatically react to the monitor's rapidly changing, staccato stimuli: heart rate slows, brain blood vessels dilate, and blood flows away from major muscles. As we continue staring at the screen, this physical reaction helps our brains focus on the incoming mental stimuli, and the constant flow of visual stimuli can shift our orienting responses into overdrive. Eventually, however, rather than continued mental stimulation, we begin to experience fatigue. After a computer or video marathon, our concentration abilities often decline, and many people report a sense of depletion - as if the energy has been "sucked out of them." Despite these side effects, computers and the Internet are hard to resist, and our brains can get hooked rapidly - especially young ones. Sales of video games world-wide are stronger than ever.
Self-proclaimed Internet addicts report feeling a pleasurable mood burst or "rush" from simply booting up their computer, let alone visiting their favorite websites - just as shopping addicts get a thrill from scanning sale ads, putting their credit cards in their wallets, and setting out on a spending spree. These feelings of euphoria, even before the actual acting out of the addiction occurs, are linked to brain chemical changes that control behaviors ranging from a seductive psychological draw to a full-blown addiction. The brain-wiring system that controls these responses involves the neurotransmitter dopamine, a brain messenger that modulates all sorts of activities involving reward, feeling good, exploration and punishment.
Dopamine is responsible for the euphoria that addicts chase, whether they get it from methamphetamine, alcohol, or Internet gambling. The addict becomes conditioned to compulsively seek, crave and recreate the sense of elation while off-line or off-drug. Whether it's knocking back a few whiskeys or betting on the horses, dopamine transmits messages to the brain's pleasure centers causing addicts to want to repeat those actions - over and over again, even if the addict is no longer experiencing the original pleasure and is aware of negative consequences.
The mental reward stimulation of the dopamine system is a powerful pull that non-addicts feel as well. Studies of volunteers enrapt in addictive video games show that gamers continue to play on despite multiple attempts to distract them. The dopamine system allows them to tolerate noise and discomfort extremely well. Previous research has shown that both eating and sexual activity drive up dopamine levels. Even checking email can become a compulsive behavior that's hard to stop.
It is not the technology itself that is addictive, but rather the specific application-of-choice. People can get hooked on Internet searching, online dating, Web shopping, porn sites, on-line gambling, or even checking their email. Even if you are not addicted to the Internet or any other technology, you may be struggling with its enticement. Ask yourself if this is an issue for you, a family member or friend, then consider what you can do to get help.
Dr. Gary Small is co-author with Gigi Vorgan of "iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind" (HarperCollins, October, 2008) as well as several other books. Visit www.DrGarySmall.com for more information.