Internet addiction is just the next evolutionary step

New research reveals that the uncontrollable desire to click may be a part of our biological makeup

Topics: Pacific Standard, Internet, addiction, Evolution, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, ,

Internet addiction is just the next evolutionary step
This piece originally appeared on Pacific Standard.

Pacific Standard Having trouble shutting down your computer? Can’t stop refreshing your Facebook and Twitter streams? Did you close Reddit in your browser window … only to open Reddit right back up again? If you’re concerned that your Internet use is becoming a compulsion, you’re probably right: New research suggests that our uncontrollable desire to click may be deeply rooted in human evolution.

“The Internet is not addictive in the same way as pharmacological substances are,” cognitive scientist Tom Stafford at the University of Sheffield in the U.K. told Tia Ghose at LiveScience “But it’s compulsive; it’s compelling; it’s distracting.”

As Stafford explains, our love for the Internet is rooted in the fact that human beings, in Ghose’s words, “compulsively seek unpredictable payoffs.” The cognitive-reward structure offered by services like email and social media are similar to those of a casino slot machine: “Most of it is junk, but every so often, you hit the jackpot.” This is a symptom of low-risk/high-reward activities like lotteries in general. As researchers found in a 2001 article in International Gambling Studies, systems that offer a low-cost chance of winning a very large prize are more likely to attract repetitive participation and, in turn, stimulate excessive (and potentially problematic) play. Although the stimuli are different (the payoff on the Internet being juicy morsels of information and entertainment rather than money), Stafford says that the immediacy and ubiquity of Internet “play”—i.e. being able to check your tweets or emails on your phone with no major transaction cost—only increases the likelihood that someone will get sucked into a continuous cycle.

“The Web’s unpredictable payoffs train people much in the same way Ivan Pavlov trained dogs,” Ghose writes. “Over time, people link a cue (e.g., an instant-message ping or the Facebook homepage) with a pleasurable rush of feel-good brain chemicals. People become habituated to seek that social rush over and over again.”



The message of Stafford’s research is clear: Your brain really wants you to click on all of those cat photos. “The next time you wonder whether you’re spending too much time on Facebook or BuzzFeed or whatever, just remind yourself: You’re wasting time because your brain wants you to,” writes my former colleague Megan Garber at The Atlantic. “The Internet’s charisma is a function not just of all the great stuff that lives on it, but also of humans’ carefully honed survival mechanisms—mechanisms evolved long ago, in response to vicious enemies. We can’t quit our cat videos, it turns out, because of … lions.”

Anyone who spends a significant amount of time on the Internet, whether for work or pleasure, can see the tendrils of Stafford’s research in their day-to-day behavior. I often find myself cycling between my Gmail inbox, Facebook, Twitter, and other services, especially social media services which are designed to constantly refresh automatically or allow users to “infinitely scroll” through the contents of their feeds. And as Internet access and usage increases, this trend is likely to grow. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 81 percent of American adults use the Internet as of survey, with 74 percent of users going online “just for fun or to pass the time.” A 2011 Ipsos Mediapoll found that the amount of time “affluent” Americans in general spend online rose about 20 percent from 2010 to more than 30 hours weekly; affluent Millennials spend more than 40 hours a week online, “essentially a full-time job.”

Does this mean we’re all Internet addicts now? Yes and no. Using the DSM as a guide, Dr. Kimberly Young at the Internet Addiction Center defines “Internet addiction” as an impulsive-control problem with four distinct subtypes: cybersexual addiction (Internet pornography), cyber-affair/relational addiction (an addiction to chat rooms and other online social forums), net compulsions (addictions to online gaming, online gambling, and eBay), and information overload (an addiction to database searches). The tipping point for Internet “addiction” is its impact on your day-to-day activities.

01. Do you feel preoccupied with the Internet (think about previous online activity or anticipate next online session)?

02. Do you feel the need to use the Internet with increasing amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction?

03. Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop Internet use?

04. Do you feel restless, moody, depressed, or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop Internet use?

05. Do you stay online longer than originally intended?

06. Have you jeopardized or risked the loss of significant relationship, job, educational, or career opportunity because of the Internet?

07. Have you lied to family members, therapists, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the Internet?

08. Do you use the Internet as a way of escaping from problems or of relieving a dysphoric mood (e.g., feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, depression)?

According to Young, answering “yes” to five or more questions may mean you suffer from Internet addiction.

However, “addiction” in the descriptive sense does not mean “addiction” in the clinical sense. Whether “Internet addiction” should be regarded as a serious psychological illness has been a matter of debate for years; the creators of the DSM-5 considered relegating Internet addiction to a section on behavioral disorders along with sex and gambling addictions, but opted to list it as a “condition for further study” instead of recognizing it as an official disorder. That Stafford places compulsive Internet surfing in the same cognitive category as gambling and other low-risk/high-reward activities defined as behavioral rather than purely psychological problems by the DSM suggests that your Internet fixation, however severe or uncontrollable it may seem, likely doesn’t reach the level of other compulsions. (It’s worth noting here that “Internet addiction disorder” was originally proposed as a satirical hoax by Dr. Ivan Goldberg in 1995, based on the DSM’s description of pathological gambling, in an effort to parody how psychiatry’s bible categorizes excessive behavior.)

“Lots of us are furtively checking emails in movie theaters and in the middle of the night, feel lost when temporarily separated from our electronic friends, and spend every spare minute surfing, texting, or playing games. But does this really qualify us as addicts?” asked Dr. Allen Francis, former chair of the DSM-IV Task Force, in Psychology Today. “No, not usually. Not unless our attachment is compulsive and without reward or utility; interferes with participation and success in real life; and causes significant distress or impairment. For most people, the tie to the Internet, however powerful and consuming, brings much more pleasure or productivity than pain and impairment.”

More plainly put: Your Internet addiction isn’t an addiction but the logical extension of existing biological functions, not necessarily a sign of dysfunction. So when does your Twitter fixation move from simply being a symptom of how humans cognitively interface with the Internet (and an annoyance to your friends and family) to something more? If you find yourself totally incapable of leaving the house to go to work, or to do anything but move between infinite browser windows, don’t tweet about it; instead, consider calling a doctor.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>