Internet Addiction and Emotional Health

By Cynthia Horner

It has been called electronic cocaine. For some the convenience and fascination of connecting through emails, texting and social media has been blamed for depression, sleep disorders, anxiety and addiction. Some research has shown that one in eight internet users show at least one sign of an unhealthy attachment to the use of the web.

Cyber stats

  • People send and receive approximately 400 texts a month.
  • Half of internet device users get online just before going to bed and first thing upon waking.
  • Teens get seven hours of screen time everyday.
  • People under age 50 check text, email, social networks every 15 minutes.
  • The average teen processes 3,700 texts a month.


My question is; does Internet use create the emotional disorder or does it feed the disorder people already have? As early as 2008 pre and post studies showed changes in areas of the brains in moderate to intense internet users. The areas of the brain where these changes were seen are called the prefrontal cortices, areas just behind the forehead responsible for short-term working memory, comprehension, cognitive thinking and judgement.

We know our brains are constantly wiring and un-wiring throughout our lives. Areas of our brains we use wire together and fire together and areas we neglect or don’t use un-wire. This change in wiring is due to what we experience. Our brains reorganize to help us adapt to or world. To keep us mentally and emotionally healthy we strive to experience or learn things that create wiring that helps us survive and not hinder our effort to survive.

Simplifying brain function: the two sides or hemispheres of our brains are not merely copies of each other. Each is responsible for separate and different abilities and both sides must work in concert with each other. That is to say when one side of our brain is working the other side must be inhibited or quieted. Looking at details on a screen and the fine motor skill needed to text or key board engages the left hemisphere of the brain. Hours of stimulating the left hemisphere can create a functional imbalance that results in judgement, behavioral and social problems, all functions of the right hemisphere that has been inhibited.

The reward system that we are wired for may be contributing to the addiction so many Internet users describe as web obsession. Because every ping could mean a social or professional opportunity, the excitement of  ‘what could be waiting’ releases dopamine, a feel good brain chemical. People can soon be conditioned to associate web use with dopamine release. Studies in China, where internet addiction is of great concern, have shown that the brains of those with Internet addiction have marked atrophy or shrinkage in the same areas as the brains of alcohol or drug addicts.

The Griffiths criteria below is a quick assessment of Internet addiction.

Salience– Internet dominates life, feelings, and behavior

Mood Modified– Changes in mood are apparent when using the Internet.

Tolerance– Increasing amounts of Internet time is needed to achieve elevated mood.

Withdraw– When stopping unpleasant feeling or anger in experienced.

Relapses– Falling back into earlier overuse patterns after years of abstinence.

Whether you think the Web is making dumb people dumber or smart people smarter it is obvious that internet addiction has the potential to have negative effects on the minds of our teens, and parents and the workforce of our world.

What my patients have taught me “Technology isn’t good or bad, it becomes what you make it.” “