Is the internet really addictive?

What is it with all those Buzzfeed quizzes?

Addiction can be defined, broadly, as a physical or psychological dependence on a substance or behaviour. Most of us probably use the internet too much, but could this really be called an addiction?

The key component of many addictions is dopamine. Dopamine is the motivational component of the body’s reward system, a pleasurable chemical released in the brain whenever we do something ‘good’. This is to reinforce positive behaviours, such as eating, which are essential to our survival. Dopamine itself is certainly addictive and plays a large role in drug addiction. Many drugs stimulate the release of dopamine in the brain; users continue taking the drug to get the dopamine hit.

But how does this relate to internet use (or abuse)? Every time we complete a Buzzfeed quiz, get a text or watch a YouTube video, our brain produces a hit of dopamine. The more this happens, the more we associate the internet with this spike of pleasure, and the more we use it. So, in this sense, the use of the internet could be termed a physical addiction. Being on the internet could also be called a psychological addiction, as most of us find it hard to regulate the time we spend online. In a 2014 study involving Finnish teenagers, only 14% were classified as normal users of technology, 61% of the participants were classified as mild over-users and 24% as moderate or serious over-users.

However, unlike ‘traditional’ addictions, you cannot build up a tolerance to the internet. With almost all addictions, when the use of the substance or behaviour is repeated, the body builds up a tolerance to it. This means more and more must be used to achieve the same effect. An example of this is caffeine intake. Someone who drinks coffee regularly will have to drink much more than someone who has never had it before in order to feel as alert. With the internet, it’s a different story. The same amount of dopamine is released every time we use the internet, no matter how often this behaviour is repeated.

So is the internet addictive? Possibly. The internet and technology, in general, do prompt the release of an addictive chemical in our brains. However, to say that it is ultimately bad and we should stop using it would both be hypocritical (as I’m writing this on my laptop) and impractical. We rely on technology so much in our everyday lives that it would be near impossible to stop using it but maybe going on your phone at three in the morning still isn’t the best idea.

Ruby V