It's official: internet addiction is a real phenomenon.
A Chinese neuro-imaging study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, found internet addiction disorder (IAD) is linked to structural changes in the brain, similar to those seen in people with drug addictions and compulsion disorders.
Physical evidence showed IAD was characterised by "impairment of white matter fibres connecting brain regions involving emotional generation and processing, executive attention, decision making, and cognitive control", researchers said.
IAD is defined as an inability to control one's use of the interweb, but prior studies mostly focused on psychological questionnaires.
This one used an empirical MRI technique to investigate specific features of the brain in a group of 17 adolescents suffering from IAD and an age-matched control group.
"The findings also suggest that IAD may share psychological and neural mechanisms with other types of impulse control disorders and substance addiction," the researchers said.
UK psychiatrist Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones told the Science Media Centre the study would be seminal in determining how future generations viewed internet addiction.
"Its findings particularly pertain to areas that control cravings and the ability to manage emotions ... and this discovery will directly impact on the nature of psychological treatment for internet addiction if the findings are replicated."
More comprehensive studies would need to be conducted before internet addiction could be potentially be reclassified as an addiction rather than an impulse control disorder, she said.
"However, this has now happened in relation to DSM-V and pathological gambling."
Professor Michael Farrell, director of the New South Wales National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre was more cautious.
"Overall this is not a bad piece of work, the limitations are that the study is not controlled, and it's possible that illicit drugs, alcohol or other caffeine-based stimulants might account for the changes.
"The specificity of the disorder IAD is also questionable. However, the authors highlight these limitations and there are not many publications on this topic, so they score for originality."
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