Internet ‘addiction’: behind the headlines

Posted in: Health, Technology, Wellbeing

Professor David Ellis’ research focuses on the impact of data and technology on our daily lives. In this post, he explains why we need to be wary of research that draws too simple a conclusion.

Is internet ‘addiction’ harming young people’s brains? It’s certainly a snappy soundbite, but not one that should be taken seriously. Research underpinning these assertions fails to stand up to scrutiny.

A recent review entitled ‘Functional connectivity changes in the brain of adolescents with internet addiction: A systematic literature review of imaging studies’ by Max L. Y. Chang and Irene O. Lee might suggest that there are associations between functional connectivity (how different regions in the brain activate) and internet ‘addiction’, but there are a number of fundamental limitations to be aware of.

Despite the use of casual language in the review itself (e.g., using words like ‘effects’) the studies reviewed cannot confirm that internet ‘addiction’ specifically changes the brain. First, the brain changes frequently regardless.

Second, any associations between internet ‘addiction’ and functional connectivity are equally likely to occur for hundreds of other reasons. For example, a negative life experience or another psychological vulnerability may lead to changes in functional activity that are unrelated to the internet.


But what about internet ‘addiction’?

The idea of internet ‘addiction’ was initially coined by Ivan K. Goldberg in 1995 as a joke. He was making a point about how it might become increasingly easy to make every day behaviour appear disordered.

Many researchers appear to not be in on the joke.

However, today the concept of internet ‘addiction’ is far from universally accepted and cannot be determined via the questionnaires used in the studies reviewed. It is comparatively easy to generate nonsense measures that can classify people as being addicted to almost anything.

A number of years ago, we published a satirical paper where we determined that nearly 70% of our sample were ‘addicted’ to spending time with their friends.

What we do know is that self-reported ‘addiction’ surveys appear to measure something about how much a person worries in general. We have repeatedly observed that surveys used to assess related ‘addictions’ measure a poorly defined construct that sometimes overlaps with pre-existing measures of wellbeing.

Perhaps even more damming is that those measures are weakly associated with the actual time someone spends using digital technologies, including the internet.


The wrong focus

The enormity of activities that the internet allows for immediately makes the idea of ‘addiction’ problematic. This has also had a detrimental impact on how social scientists theorise and think about the internet more broadly.

From an applied perspective, it shifts the focus away from genuine online harm and towards a conclusion that suggests removing technology from peoples’ lives will be helpful. Yet evidence to suggest that removing the internet brings any tangible benefits has not been forthcoming. The idea that banning smartphones in schools will bring benefits is also not supported by current evidence.

Of course, the potential for online harm is very real and includes issues pertaining to children encountering non-age-appropriate content, bullying, as well as risks to privacy and security. Mitigating these will involve helping children and others learn to use technologies safely today and in the future.


New policy

Nevertheless, notions of ‘addiction’ continue to trickle down. The US Surgeon General has recently suggested that social media apps should come with a warning label as with cigarettes and alcohol.

But of course, the evidence that social media or the internet causes harm at such a general level remains weak.

This should not come as a huge surprise. The internet has many positive impacts on our lives. For example, most teenagers report that they enjoy using the internet when asked. It has long since become the backbone of the modern economy.

The same cannot be said when we consider smoking or alcohol, and such comparisons from a policy perspective quickly hit a dead end.

One final thought – despite repeated warnings from most experts in the field, some researchers have not only missed Ivan’s joke from 1995 but continue to approach new technology in a way that is methodologically flawed, theoretically broken and strangely fixated on a political agenda that is built on sand.

This tells us almost as much about the researchers as it does the underlying science.

Posted in: Health, Technology, Wellbeing

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