How Addictive Internet Apps Harness Our Brain’s Reward Pathways

Can you become addicted to the Internet?

This is the question addressed in a new review article published in Science by Professor Matthias Brand of the University of Duisburg-Essen.

The latest revision of the World Health Organization’s global health compendium, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), includes – for the first time – two types of addiction related to our internet use: gambling and gaming disorders. This update reflects the unique way the internet has come to play a role in our daily lives and impact our mental health.

Up to three percent of young people are believed to suffer from gaming disorder, while unspecified internet use disorder (ICD-11 also considers problematic pornography use as a subtype of disorder compulsive sexual behavior, with other potential diagnoses including problematic use of online shopping platforms or social media) may affect 7% of the world’s population.

“Feel better” and “must do” course

In his article, Brand presents a review of our current understanding of how behavioral addictions like gambling and gambling disorders affect the brain. “We know from addiction research that, especially in the online environment, apps that are used addictively are obviously linked to positive reinforcement in terms of pleasure and reward,” Brand said. Technology networks in an interview.

Anyone who’s felt the micro-rush of seeing a pop-up like or share on their phone knows what Brand is talking about. The flip side, Brand says, is that these apps also provide “negative reinforcement” — the ability to “escape reality to alter negative moods.” Again, anyone who has clicked on a shopping platform to distract themselves from a stressful or depressing day knows that many apps rely on this ability to alter the psychology of their users.

Both of these forms of reinforcement are governed by a brain pathway that Brand’s article succinctly calls the “feel better” pathway. Previous research has identified that brain areas involved include frontal-striatal loops related to reward anticipation and circuits in the ventral striatum that are also known to play a role in substance use disorders. “When you do fMRI with subjects with alcohol use disorder, for example, showing them images of a glass of beer versus neutral images, you usually see this ventral striatum activity” , says Brand.

These circuits, says Brand, lead to the initial stages of addiction, whether to alcohol or fortnite, but later in the course of the condition, other circuits come to predominate brain activity. He collectively called these later circuits the “must-do” route. This represents the progression from addiction to more habitual and compulsive addiction, where the behavior persists despite awareness of the harm it is causing.

Substance Abuse vs Internet Addiction

A key distinction between addictions that involve substances and those that don’t is that drugs like alcohol and cocaine can actually cause neurotoxic damage to the very areas of the brain that would otherwise help users stop a behavior. harmful. This direct harm is not present in behavioral addictions.

But Brand is careful to point out that he thinks gambling or internet gambling addiction is not a choice: “There are neural adaptations in every human related to all behaviors, basically. This means that if you frequently and very intensively engage in specific behaviors, it can lead to neural adaptations that can also change your ability to control use,” he says.

The birth of addiction

The final part of Brand’s article examines some of the glaring gaps in our knowledge of how addiction begins and sustains itself. The internet is not only an integral part of life for the vast majority of people, but it is also something they use every day without becoming addicted. Why do some social media users find themselves totally dependent on the notification buzz, while others can easily hang up their phone?

Brand says the answer involves a vulnerability factor shared with other mental disorders: genetic predisposition, early childhood trauma and specific personality traits all play a role.

The trait these factors can influence, Brand says, is self-control — the ability to say “no” to the temptation of a screen or your phone chiming. But what is unclear is whether the vulnerability factors mentioned above erode individuals’ ability to make beneficial choices for themselves, or whether the positive and negative reinforcement of addictive activity is the causal factor for the loss of user control.

The last unknown that Brand talks about is the specificity of the mechanisms of Internet addiction. He points out that addiction to online apps and gaming platforms presents unique barriers to recovery. Unlike, say, alcohol, apps that want to keep users hooked actively modify themselves based on previous activity to make themselves as engaging and hard to put down as possible. Moreover, for the vast majority of our population, it is impossible to avoid being online, unlike cocaine, for example. This means, says Brand, that “complete abstinence is not the goal and cannot be the goal.”

To answer these questions, long-term studies that combine multiple types of analysis are needed, Brand says. If internet-specific mechanisms were to be shown to be responsible for these addictions, what could public health authorities do to help patients? Brand says it’s not necessary to “stigmatize all gamers or everyone who uses online purchases”, but there are specific things that could be looked at by regulators.

The brand mentions loot boxes, which bring a gaming element into online gaming setups, and the collection of private data by social networks as prizes for free access to their platforms, as potential targets. Part of the solution, he concludes, will also lie on the side of the user: “Early intervention and therapy also need to be improved. I think it’s both sides; you can work on a societal level, which I think is important, and also on an individual level, to help people not develop this problematic behavior.

Reference: Brand M, can the Internet become addictive? Science. 2022;376(6595). do I:10.1126/science.abn4189

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