Modern Issue of Internet Addiction

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The Inception of the Internet

Before I discuss Internet addiction specifically, it is helpful to know the history of how and why the Internet was created. The Internet is wonderfully and terrifyingly ubiquitous. It is hard to imagine life without it. However, despite the omnipresent nature of the Internet in society today, the network’s origins are not common knowledge. According to the Congressional Digest article entitled “Internet History: From ARPANET to Broadband”, ARPANET, was the precursor to the now infamous Internet and the catalyst of the digital era (p. 35). ARPANET evolved out of ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was established in 1957 in response to the launching of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union.

The United States felt threatened and at a disadvantage, and needed to “regain technical superiority”, so the Department of Defense, issued a $19,800 contract to study the “design and specification of a computer network” in order for the United States to maintain its reputation and regain technological prowess (p. 35). However, it was quickly realized that for this mission to be accomplished, it was going to demand all of the brain power across the country, which would require advanced computer technology to facilitate this endeavor (p. 35). Within in ARPA, the Information Process Techniques Office (IPTO).

The elected head of the IPTO, J.C.R. Licklider had hopes of constructing an “intergalactic” community that would allow different computers from a variety of manufacturers, with different operating systems, to communicate (p.35). However, in order to create a robust mechanism of communication like this, the workload needed to be dispersed and contracted out. Thus, in 1968, $563,000 was given to technological research, attempting to produce four interface message processors (IMPS) with the capability of linking computers over a network, miles apart from each other (p. 36). On October 15, 1969, a computer at UCLA, connected over a network, to a computer at Stanford, giving birth to ARPANET and rise to a new wave of communication (p. 36).

By 1969, ARPANET was able to connect computers from multiple universities, including Stanford, UCLA, UC-Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah (p. 36). This was the first time that a computer was seen as a possible “extender of human [capability]” and not just simply a machine (p. 36). With this growing network, in the 1980s and 1990s organizations were put in place to establish common standards and protocols to manage, delegate and review what information is shared (p. 37). For instance, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) was established in 1998 to coordinate and manage the Domain Name System ensuring that each address was unique and that everyone has access to each page that was linked to each address (p. 37). Today, there are 63 worldwide Internet Standards that help to oversee the immense breadth of the Internet (p. 37). With the establishment of these standards the speed of the Internet skyrocketed and created a high demand among private sector businesses.

As the Internet grew in popularity, it was slowly integrated into the household (p. 37). Finally by 1996, North American households had access to broadband Internet. The first cable service provided by a company called Rogers Communications (p. 37). The Internet’s journey into the home was one that fulfilled not only a political need, but unbeknownst to its creators at the time, the Internet also stimulated the natural, human instinct to connect with other and be social, as well as the urge to seek out and gather information. Ever since the times of hunter-gatherers, the acquisition of knowledge has been advantageous ( ). Now, through the medium of the Internet, society has created an environment of unlimited information and built devices that not only make searching for information easier but the devices themselves are constantly pushing information out. There is, quite frankly, no end to new information. The Internet is bottomless. The trick is to not get in to deep that you fall down the rabbit hole.

The New Cigarette: Internet Addiction

As I have shown, humans have a need for sociability and the consumption of information, but it can become a problem. A problem that is now just being recognized. Compulsive behaviors tend to evolve when instinct meets unlimited access. In Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, Adam Alter delves into the role that technology has played in the rise of behavioral addiction, including Internet addiction. Alter speaks to how the environment of the modern digital age is far more conducive to addiction than any other vices humans have faced with in the past (p. 4). He states that in the 1960s “we swam through waters with only a few hooks: cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs” all of which were hard to come by and expensive (p. 4).

Now however, there is “the Facebook hook”, “the Instagram hook”, and “the email hook”, the list goes on. The accessibility factor of the Internet is what makes it so dangerous, anyone at any age can get their hands on this drug. The Internet is immediate, accessible, convenient and it discriminates against no one. The word ‘addict’ in the past has become a label that separates people, but in the case of the Internet, we are all at risk. The Internet is truly the new cigarette in today’s modern digital world, only a person doesn’t have to be 21 to try it for the first time or get hooked.

To understand the harmful of effects that Internet overuse has on the brain, one must first understand the anatomy of the brain, how it works, and how it interprets and reacts to stimuli. The brain is responsible for filtering and processing all of the information that one feeds it, like the experiences it encounters through the five senses: touch, taste, smell, sight, sound. Each bit of information is analyzed through a simple, yet intricate electrochemical process, that mimics the natural exchange of words in a conversation. The brain’s communication system relies on specific specialized cells called neurons (E).

Scientists estimate that there are about 85-200 billion neurons in the human brain (E). Each individual neuron can be examined in three sections: the soma, the axon, and the dendrites (E). The soma, the cell body, is located at the center of each neuron, the axon transmits an electric pulse and the dendrites receive those electric pulses (E). All of these neurons create a vast, interconnected communication system. When the brain receives a piece of information a neuron fires, the impulse, scientifically speaking, the action potential, travels down the axon of a neuron and meets up with the pre-synapse, which is located at the end of the axon, where it activates the release of chemicals called neurotransmitters.

The neurotransmitters lay dormant in protective vesicles until they are acted upon by an axon potential or impulse. The neurotransmitters are released into a small open space in between two neurons, called the synapse (E). On the other side of the synapse is the post synapse where the neurotransmitters make contact with the dendrites of another neuron (E). On the surface of the postsynaptic membrane, there are receptors where the neurotransmitters attach and are diffused the next neuron and the signal or message is passed (E). This process is repeated numerous times for each new bit of information that the brain receives and usually results in an output physical reaction to the input of information.

The brain continues throughout one’s lifetime to create new neurons and neural pathways. Each new action or experience brings about an anatomical change in the brain (p. 26). In fact, James Olds, a professor of neuroscience at George Mason University states “the brain has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly” at any point in time (qtd in Carr p. 26). However, while this ability can be harnessed as an advantage, it can also become a detriment to the brain, as this specific characteristic makes the brain vulnerable to addictions, including Internet addiction.

The brain is said to be “massively plastic” which refers to the technical term for the brain’s innate flexibility, neuroplasticity. For decades, it was thought that the brain became fixed by adulthood, that it became immalleable after a particular age, but this was disproved by an experiment conducted by Michael Merzenich. Merzenich performed research on brain mapping by drilling a hole in the skull of a monkey using a hair-thin microprobe to examine the monkey’s cerebral cortex (p. 21). It is known that each individual part of the body is represented by a corresponding area of the cerebral cortex. Merzenich was about to view what brain activity occurred when he would touch the monkey’s hand (p. 21). He completed this process on four other monkeys and created a brain map for each. Then following the first portion of the experiment, Merzenich took a scalpel and created an incision in the monkey’s hands cutting the sensory nerve to examine how the monkey’s brain would handle the consequent nerve damage.

At first, the nerves repaired themselves in a haphazard configuration and the brain was confused (p. 21). The neurons were not firing in the same pattern as before. However, when Merzenich conducted the same sensory test as he did before the surgery, touching the monkey’s hands, the confusion had been corrected. Merzenich states that “looking back on it, I realized that I had seen evidence of neuroplasticity” (p. 25). Just as learning to ride a bike and pedal creates new neurons and connections, an Internet addiction, as it develops, chemically alters the brain’s communication system as it creates new neural pathways.

The inherent neuroplasticity of the brain is most apparent when the brain is introduced to technology. In hindsight, one can look back and see this to be true in the case of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was crippled with ailments of all sorts from loss of sight to blinding headaches when he attempted to write; the invention of the writing ball saved him (p. 17). Nietzsche was able to continue writing but in a different fashion. His prose seemed to take on a different tone and voice; his work became more “forceful” as if the “machine’s power” was transferred onto the page (p. 17).

The new writing instrument had a direct impact and altered the way in which Nietzsche was able to express his thoughts and ideas. Likewise, scientists have trained animals like monkeys to use certain tools, like rakes and pliers, and it was found that brains of the monkeys had changed to incorporate the rakes and the pliers into the mind maps of the animals’ hands (p. 32). Simply stated, it was “as if the pliers were now the hand fingers” (p. 32). Not only does this further support neuroplasticity, but it also demonstrates how susceptible the brain is to change in the presence of mechanics and technology. The mechanism of change for this generation is the Internet. Not only are people hooked to it physically, never leaving their phones or computers out of their sight, the Internet has also become an extra appendage to the brain.

However, it is important not to confuse the brain’s plasticity with elasticity, as the one does not infer the other (p. 34). The paradox of neuroplasticity is that mental flexibility can turn into rigid inflexibility if certain parts of the brain are being continuously utilized and some not at all, which is the case with addiction. “Circuits [neural pathways] can weaken or dissolve with neglect” and that “the possibility of intellectual decay is inherent in the malleability of our brains” (35). This is what happens during Internet addiction, performing the same action strengthens some neurons and weakens others. The notion of a fixed brain returns, but it is correctable.

Internet addiction results in the dystrophy of some.. This also explains why withdrawal is so difficult, but also why it is possible to overcome an addiction. Once the cause of addiction is removed, the brain’s malleability comes back into play as the brain organizes itself to deal with the newest situation at hand, only it is more difficult to pedal back than it is forward.

The THC of the Internet: Dopamine

Changing the structure, the network of neurons, ultimately affects the function of those structures and the messages that are transmitted, because in biology form fits function. As the same experience is repeated, like in the case of Internet addiction, not only is there anatomical change within the brain, but physiological and chemical changes occur as well. Internet addiction increases the concentration and intensity with which the neurotransmitters are released due to overstimulation. The message or neurotransmitter under examination is dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is a pleasure producing chemical. Alter, in his novel argues that human behavior is driven by qualitative “cost-benefit calculations that determine where an act will be performed once, twice, a hundred times, or not at all” (p. 71). If the benefits outweigh the costs, it is likely that the act will be repeated because it hits the right “neurological notes”, the secretion of dopamine being the most beautiful note (p. 71).

Dopamine is also associated with addictions such as alcoholism, drug addiction, smoking, and compulsive gambling, as well as Internet addiction. When a person takes a hit of cocaine, or receives a piece of new information, like a email, text, or notification of a Instagram post, they get the same hit or a rush of dopamine. Alter quotes Claire Gillian, a neuroscientist who studies obsessive and repetitive behaviors, who claims that drugs and addictive behaviors activate “the same reward center in the brain” and if the behavior has been “paired with rewarding outcomes in the past–the brain will treat it the same way it treats a drug” (71). Comparably, a hit of cocaine may induced a larger rush of dopamine, or getting a like a an Instagram picture, but the same pathways are activated and result in the same consequence.

When dopamine is released it activates the mesolimbic pathway . Dopamine is released from the ventral area (VTA) of the brain and send to the amygdala, the nucleus accumbens, the prefrontal cortex, and the hippocampus. First, the amygdala recognizes that the experience that just happened was pleasurable and notifies the hippocampus. Second, the hippocampus receives the message from the amygdala and stores memory of this specific experience, like where this experience took place, so that in the future it can be repeated. Third, when the dopamine reaches the nucleus accumbens, which controls a person’s motor skills, it propels the person to perform the experience again. In the case of Internet addiction this could mean switching from Instagram to Snapchat to see if anyone liked your story. Lastly, the prefrontal cortex helps one to focus on the specific experience and clouds out the rest of the world.

According to Alter, at first the benefits outweigh the downsides as the brain during the translation of the rush of dopamine into pleasure and happiness. However, quickly the brain interprets this overstimulation flooding as an error, and adapts itself to produce less and less dopamine, by shutting off and blocking some of the dopamine receptors. The rush of dopamine remains of the same high intensity, but because when some of the receptors are blocked off, it does not result in the same payoff, the same heighted feeling of pleasure. When the brain becomes overstimulated it builds us a tolerance and the only way to return to that “original high” is to take more of the drug or repeat the experience, but at a higher intensity. The dopaminergic pathway explains the danger of addiction, because the brain can only take so much and if a person keeps increasing the intensity of the drug or experience that is responsible for momentary feelings of pleasure, they are going to end of killing more brain cells than making them.

Additionally, a study was conducted in China (year) that examined the dopamine levels of individuals with Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD). The criteria for diagnosis was Beard’s definition of IAD:

“an individual is addicted when an individual’s psychological state, which includes both mental and emotional states, as well as their scholastic, occupational, and social interactions, is impaired by the overuse of the medium”.

The study took people/a population of Internet addicts and compared them to an equal population of people not addicted to the Internet, who served as the control group and comparison. Each of the participants were injected which makes brain activity visible under the radiation of a scan. The scan was implemented to examine the dopamine transporter (DAT) which is a protein on the presynaptic terminal and it plays an important role in the “regulation of striatal synaptic dopamine levels” (p. 2).

The brain imaging performed on the participants and Showed that “DAT expression level of striatum was significantly decreased in IAD subjects” (p. 3).

“These result suggest that IAD may cause serious damages to the brain and the neuroimaging findings further illustrate IAD is associated with dysfunctions in the dopaminergic brain systems”.

Cite this paper

Modern Issue of Internet Addiction. (2021, Sep 20). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/modern-issue-of-internet-addiction/

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