The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Internet Addiction Creates Imbalance in the Brain

A new study finds that screen addictions create a chemical imbalance that can be corrected with therapy

2 min read
A Korean teenager staring intently at a smartphone.
Photo: Sungjin Kim/Getty Images

New research has linked Internet addictions with a chemical imbalance in the brain. In the small study, presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago, 19 participants with addictions to phones, tablets, and computers exhibited disproportionately high levels of a neurotransmitter that inhibits brain activity. 

The good news: After nine weeks of therapy, the participants’ brain chemicals normalized, and their screen time decreased, says Hyung Suk Seo, a professor of neuroradiology at Korea University in Seoul, who presented the study

Seo and his colleagues discovered the brain chemical imbalance using magnetic resonance spectroscopy—an imaging technique that detects changes in certain metabolites in the brain. The tool showed that participants with Internet addictions, compared with a control group, had elevated levels of gamma aminobutyric acid, or GABA, a neurotransmitter that has been linked with other addictions and psychiatric disorders. 

The participants—19 young people in Korea with an average age of 15—had all been diagnosed with Internet and smartphone addictions. A diagnosis of Internet addiction typically means that the person uses the Internet to the point that it interferes with daily life. Participants also had significantly higher scores in depression, anxiety, insomnia, and impulsivity, compared with nonaddicted teenagers.

Twelve of the addicts were then given nine weeks of a type of addiction treatment called cognitive behavioral therapy. After the treatment, Seo again measured their GABA levels, and found that they had normalized.

Even more important, the number of hours the kids spent in front of a screen also decreased. “Being able to observe normalization—that’s a very intriguing finding,” says Max Wintermark, a neuroradiologist at Stanford University who was not involved in the study. Finding a way to monitor the effect of an addiction treatment—especially some kind of early indicator—can be difficult, he says. “So to have some kind of biomarker that you extract from an imaging technique that allows you to monitor the effect of your treatment and tell you early on whether it’s succeeding—that’s extremely valuable,” he says. 

Wintermark notes that since there were only 19 people in the study group, the measurements of their GABA levels “should be taken with a grain of salt.” A study of a larger population would be needed to draw conclusions about the role of the chemical in Internet addictions. The reduction in addiction symptoms, however, is a significant finding because “each patient serves as his or her own control,” he says.

Other research groups have used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to identify structural changes in the brain caused by Internet addictions. Some have even observed abnormal white matter and shrinkage of brain tissue linked to screen addiction. 

Continuing such studies is important, given the increase in Internet, phone, and tablet use globally. “Those devices have become such an integral part of our lives. We might not meet the diagnostic criteria of addiction, but it’s something that we all experience to a certain degree,” Wintermark says. Seo’s study “gives us a bit of hope” that there are “things we can do to get back to normal.” 

The Conversation (0)

Are You Ready for Workplace Brain Scanning?

Extracting and using brain data will make workers happier and more productive, backers say

11 min read
A photo collage showing a man wearing a eeg headset while looking at a computer screen.
Nadia Radic

Get ready: Neurotechnology is coming to the workplace. Neural sensors are now reliable and affordable enough to support commercial pilot projects that extract productivity-enhancing data from workers’ brains. These projects aren’t confined to specialized workplaces; they’re also happening in offices, factories, farms, and airports. The companies and people behind these neurotech devices are certain that they will improve our lives. But there are serious questions about whether work should be organized around certain functions of the brain, rather than the person as a whole.

To be clear, the kind of neurotech that’s currently available is nowhere close to reading minds. Sensors detect electrical activity across different areas of the brain, and the patterns in that activity can be broadly correlated with different feelings or physiological responses, such as stress, focus, or a reaction to external stimuli. These data can be exploited to make workers more efficient—and, proponents of the technology say, to make them happier. Two of the most interesting innovators in this field are the Israel-based startup InnerEye, which aims to give workers superhuman abilities, and Emotiv, a Silicon Valley neurotech company that’s bringing a brain-tracking wearable to office workers, including those working remotely.

Keep Reading ↓Show less