Is internet addiction a thing?

It’s complicated. (this was originally written in response to a student discussion)

The conference I attended last summer had a keynote speaker whose work is on gaming addiction. Essentially, gaming addiction affects the same part of the brain as gambling addiction. As with gambling addiction, a person can participate in the activity on a regular basis and not be addicted, while another person will be.The deciding factors in gaming addiction from a behavioral perspective are 1) Can you control the behavior? and 2) Does the behavior have a significantly negative affect on your life?

One of the problems with understanding this issue is how freely we use the word “addiction.” I am not addicted to chocolate unless I can’t stop eating it, I’ve drained my bank account buying fancy chocolate, am experiencing negative health affects, and my chocolate consumption is affecting my relationships. But often we say, “I am addicted to chocolate!!!” when we really mean, “I really like chocolate.” So when we talk about the compulsion to engage with social media, the compulsion alone is not addiction, it’s just a reaction–one that we should perhaps be conscious of, but not a harbinger of chocolate or internet related-doom.

As a internet researcher and heavy user of internet technologies, it is clear that we don’t have many examples or visible research on healthy self-regulation of social media consumption. This makes it hard to decide when to limit ourselves. As noted, we get a dopamine hit when someone says something nice or likes a post. We also can experience a cortisol reaction from a negative post, depending on our personal history and how direct and violent the wording is.

All this is to say, yes, social media can be problematic, especially if you have impulse control issues (which means all adolescents), but it is yet another expression of human ingenuity and frailty, like many inventions that came before.

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