Is it safe for teenagers to spend long periods of time on the internet—especially at a time when their brains are still maturing?

Perhaps not, according to a recent study on Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD).

A team of scientists from China has found that not only does heavy internet use change the structure of the brain, but it results in damage that could affect a person’s cognitive performance. 1

The researchers were interested in how internet addiction affected young people in order to help address the growing problem. As many as 24 million young people are affected with internet addiction in China alone, they say.

To do this, they recruited 18 teens with internet addiction disorder, which they identified using the questions in the box. These people used the internet between eight and 12 hours a day for about six days a week. The scientists checked to see that the volunteers did not use illegal drugs, smoke or have other mental or physical problems that might interfere with results.

The scientists conducted brain MRI scans of the 18 volunteers and a group of non-addicted controls and compared the two sets of results.

They found changes in both the gray matter (the part of the brain made up of closely packed neurons) and white matter (the deeper parts of the brain made up of long nerve fibres that convey sensory information).

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The scientists found that the volunteers who were addicted to the internet had less gray matter in several area of the brain responsible for:

  • cognitive control
  • selecting appropriate behaviour
  • goal-related behaviour
  • higher cognitive functions (memory, behaviour, personality).

They also found that the amount of gray matter in the brain decreased as the amount of time on the internet increased.

In addition, the scientists found changes in white matter in several parts of the brain responsible for memory, sensory information and regulating emotions.

According to the authors, the effects could be serious. ‘Our results suggested that long-term internet addiction would result in brain structural alterations, which probably contributed to chronic dysfunction in subjects with IAD,’ they say.

The Chinese researchers are not the only ones to cast doubt on the effects of heavy media use on the brain. Professor David Levy of the University of Washington, refers to the ‘popcorn brain’ — a brain that is so acclimatised to the constant stimulation of online activity that it is unable to function properly at the slower pace of everyday reality.

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Other researchers, such as Baroness Susan Greenfield, have also spoken publicly about the effects of media dependency.

These changes could have serious implications for young people.

The authors say that addiction to the internet is related to:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • academic failure
  • reduced work performance
  • reduced psychological well-being
  • and impulsive behaviour.

Internet addiction test

  • 1. Do you feel absorbed in the Internet (remember previous online activity or the desired next online session)?
  • 2. Do you feel satisfied with Internet use if you increase your amount of online time?
  • 3. Have you failed to control, reduce, or quit Internet use repeatedly?
  • 4. Do you feel nervous, temperamental, depressed, or sensitive when trying to reduce or quit Internet use?
  • 6. 5. Do you stay online longer than originally intended?
  • 7. Have you taken the risk of losing a significant relationship, job, educational or career opportunity because of the Internet?
  • 8. Have you lied to your family members, therapist, or others to hide the truth of your involvement with the Internet?
  • 9. Do you use the Internet as a way of escaping from problems or of relieving an anxious mood (e.g., feelings of helplessness, guilty, anxiety, or depression)?
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    A ‘yes’ answer to questions 1 to 5 and any other question indicates the condition of Internet Addiction Disorder.


    Yuan K, Qin W, Wang G, Zeng F, Zhao L, et al ‘Microstructure Abnormalities in Adolescents with Internet Addiction Disorder’, PLoS ONE 6(6): e20708. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0020708, June 3, 2011.

    CNN, 24.06.1…popcorn.brain…/index.html

    from ‘EMR and Health’ Sept 2011, vol 7 no 3

    About The Author – Lyn McLean is a consumer advocate, author and educator and has been monitoring and writing on the subject of electromagnetic radiation (EMR) for over 20 years. She is the director of EMR Australia.

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