Addiction or support?
Last week I spoke about the concept of internet addiction and how the American Psychiatric Association (APA) would be recognising it as a cause of depression as from next year.
The South Korean government has taken this addiction seriously, and on an even larger scale, China has taken action too. Around 10 million children are considered to be internet addicts and the Chinese government has introduced laws to discourage more than three hours of personal computer gaming per day, thereby criminalising ‘excessive’ internet use.
As I touched upon last week, there is very little evidence to support the theory that excessive internet use causes depression or worse disorders. However, the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) has issued a report which concluded that excessive Facebook use could lead to depression, and advised adolescents in particular to limit their time on this social network.
However, researchers from the University of Wisconsin say the academy has been alarmist. Their own research involving 190 students, held at the university, found no association between Facebook and depression (J. Adolesc. Health, 2012).
I promised a positive look at internet use, and internet-based therapy can help ease depression according to several studies. In one, internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy worked just as well as face-to-face sessions, with the added benefit that patients could choose their own time for the therapy.
It is also easier for people to access therapies which often have a long waiting list of patients. The internet therapy programme helped to ease existing symptoms, and just 10 per cent suffered a relapse, according to a doctoral dissertation by Fredrik Hollandare at Orebro University, Sweden.
The Web can also help prevent depression in the elderly; again, several studies have shown this. In one, older people who regularly use the Web are one-third less prone to being depressed.
A third of over-65s regularly use Facebook and Twitter and, according to the University of Alabama, researchers found it helped them stay in touch with family and friends, especially when family has moved overseas (The British Psychological Society, 2012).
More good news regarding internet use shows that both computers and the Web can be a force for good. Combining regular computer use with moderate exercise helps protect against memory loss.
In a study of 926 people aged between 70 and 93, those who exercised regularly and used a computer were less likely to suffer mild cognitive decline. Nearly 38 per cent of those who didn’t exercise or use the computer showed signs of mild cognitive decline (Mayo Clin. Proc., 2012).
In addition, the internet provides support when people feel isolated, or need some friendly advice or sympathy. Researchers from the University of Michigan carried out a study of 1,000 women who had suffered a miscarriage; they discovered that the women used website message boards to help them overcome their grief. The most common reason for posting messages was to confirm a feeling that their problem was not unique (Women’s Health Issues, 2011).
Tinnitus was another disorder helped by internet use. It provided a therapeutic aid and was as effective as attending group sessions for the sufferers. They used the Web-based Tinnitus Handicap Inventory therapy programme for 10 weeks and saw their distress levels drop to the same measure as those who attended cognitive behavioural sessions.
However, researchers have found that internet addiction changes the physical brain. One magnetic resonance imaging study of 18 internet addicts was compared to 15 adolescents who were not frequent users of the internet.
They discovered that the addicts had undergone structural changes (Eur. J. Radiol., 2011). A different team of Chinese researchers also detected abnormal white matter in the brains of 17 addicts. They believe the white matter abnormalities could impair behaviour (PLoS One, 2012).
John Grohol, founder of the Psych Central Web portal on mental health, argues that brain changes mean little: “A whole host of activities ‘rewire the brain’, from learning a new foreign language to learning to drive a car.
“Every action we take changes our brain chemistry,” he writes.
Confusingly, for every case of social isolation, there is one where the Web has helped bring people together. A good example is the parents’ community website www.mumsnet.com, which attracts around five million visitors every month.
Visitors to this site are looking for advice from their virtual extended family regarding bringing up their children. On the other hand, the internet is a siren call for the lonely, socially maladroit, the depressed and the psychotic; these tend to be the ones who become internet addicts.
However, it has also been a force for good for a vast majority of users. There is little solid evidence to suggest that the internet causes mental or psychological problems; at worst, it may exacerbate a problem already there.
Worryingly, the idea that this is a reason to begin to medicate a whole new generation is frightening for anyone outside the pharmaceutical industry.