Internet Addiction

The Internet is a natural experiment in human conditioning.

Posted Sep 25, 2019 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

The Internet may be relatively new but the phenomenon of addiction and its basis in the brain are not. Software developers manifest a good understanding of this fact. They know what makes us click. So what does Internet addiction really mean?

Gaming Addiction in South Korea

For some it means spending every waking hour engaged in Internet gaming. This obsession has been particularly noted in some Asian countries. In South Korea, for instance, it is estimated that a fifth of the population may be addicted to online gaming.

Many people devote all of their time to this absorbing activity. Gaming is not a problem in itself. The problem is that other areas of a person's life suffer: Students fail to study. Workers do little work. There is little time for friends or lovers.

Internet addiction is perceived as a major social problem in South Korea, on par with alcoholism or drug addiction. Treatment centers for Internet addiction have sprung up that are the equivalent of detox centers for alcoholics

This begs the question of what goes on in the brains of Internet addicts. Evidently, it is similar to what occurs in other types of addiction.

The Brain Basis of Internet Addiction

Our understanding of addiction increased after researchers placed electrodes in the nucleus accumbens of rats. The subjects could press a lever to deliver electrical stimulation to this region of the brain. This delivered a powerful feeling of pleasure that turned out to be stronger than the subjects would have received from natural sources of pleasure, such as food, or sex.

We know this because the animals continued to press the lever and ignored such naturalistic sources of reward. The addiction was so strong that subjects ignored more naturalistic sources of pleasure. Indeed, they failed to eat and lost weight, as is also common for human addicts of drugs like heroin.

While Internet developers never placed any electrodes in human brains, they might as well have done so in terms of the addictive properties of Internet gaming and social media.

We now realize that software developers have a very good working knowledge of addiction and gear their sites so as to keep users active and engaged. When we click a mouse, or swipe an icon, we might as well be pressing a lever to deliver a jolt to the pleasure-registering part of the brain.

How Internet Developers Understand the Brain

When advertising really took off early in the twentieth century, it did so with inspiration from animal behavior. John B. Watson had studied classical conditioning and knew that one event could be arbitrarily associated with another. If a buzzer was paired with the appearance of food, then a dog would salivate when the buzzer sounded, even if no food was actually present.

Having left the academic world in disgrace, Watson developed a career in advertising and applied the principles of classical conditioning. For example, an ordinary household object, such as a bar of soap could be associated with sexual attractiveness by pairing it with sexy female models in ads. So the product being sold shifted from cleanliness to sexual attractiveness.

If Watson took his cue from animal behavior, internet developers are inspired by neuroscience. They are particularly focused on what gets our attention and this helps explain some of the undesirable features of modern life including the prevalence of anger and sensationalism, Their mission is thus to give people whatever draws, and holds, their attention.

The RAS and Fear and Anger and Engagement

The brain stem houses an attentional mechanism known as the Reticular Activating System (or RAS). This serves to rouse an individual during an emergency and to mobilize the body for action in the fight-or-flight response.

It follows that mammals pay most attention to dangers, such as predators, or to threats, such as the loss of food, or a mate. The negative emotions of fear and anger thus prevail in emergency situations that require a speedy response.

So when Internet developers compete for user engagement they emphasize these negative emotions. Hence, news stories always emphasize threats we might face, whether of random violence, deadly diseases, or natural disasters like large fires, hurricanes, or earthquakes.

They also exploit in-group-out-group distinctions so that political discourse online plays up conflict between Republicans and Democrats, Blacks and Whites, or immigrants and residents.

Emphasis on the negative is the reason that in the Internet age, we may perceive the world as being inherently dangerous even though our lives are objectively safer than they have ever been.

How We Are Programmed to Use Social Media

Internet content is mostly free but financed by advertising revenues that are based on user attention rates. So our attention drives ad revenues and is thus monetized by Internet businesses.

Under this scenario, users become like trained pigeons in a conditioning experiment. Just as experimenters control a pigeon's pecking, entrepreneurs keep us clicking.

One might conclude that the experimental pigeons get fed while Internet users obtain the brain stimulation that we crave, whether from the unusual and awe-inspiring, or the frightening and infuriating.

The problem is that the Internet is being contaminated and what gains our attention is not necessarily good for us and may not be based on reality. In particular, news feeds are contaminated by sensational content that evokes strong emotions of fear, anger, or outrage. These emotions keep us coming back for more because of the way our RAS works to hone in on dangers.

Consequently, users can get whipped up into a frenzy that is itself more damaging than the story being passed on. This phenomenon is illustrated by a single Ebola case in New York that posed no actual threat to the public but incited a frenzy as Internet users reconstructed the movements of the infected doctor around the city—when the disease was not communicable.

These dynamics also contribute to the rise of political polarization and hate speech on the Internet and a world where hate-filled demagogues get most of the attention.