A lot has been made of Internet Addiction Disorder over the last few years. Hardcore Internet users — defined as people who log 38 hours or more per week — show brain activity that’s surprisingly similar to that of cocaine addicts and alcoholics. The topic is so popular among behavior researchers that it’s quickly becoming the latest “it” diagnosis of the mental healthcare community. While IAD stopped short of being officially classified, it won’t be long now: Next year, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the bible of the psychiatry/psychology field that’s used for diagnosing psychological disorders — will add “Internet use disorder” to its appendix.
And then there are those wacky Internet addiction clinics that have sprung up all over Asia and Australia. On second thought, maybe they’re not so wacky after all — they’re clearly needed. One kid even infamously murdered his mother just for urging him to log off his game, and another set of parents let their real-life baby starve while they took care of their “virtual” baby. And sadly, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The stories go on and on. The situations range from strange and funny, to mildly disturbing, to absolutely shocking. It’s enough to make you wonder if we’re not hardwired this way.
Well, that could genuinely be true in some cases, say researchers. Seems there’s a gene mutation that may predispose some people to cyber addiction — not unlike nicotine addiction. Actually, IAD might be exactly like that. In a study of 843 participants conducted by the University of Bonn in Germany, the 132 people who showed “problematic” (read: obsessive) online habits and distress when separated from the Internet were also the ones who were more likely to have the genetic variation related to the nic habit. (Interestingly, more women are likely to have the mutation than men.)
In smokers, nicotine unlocks receptors that trigger the brain’s reward response. It’s increasingly beginning to look like the same thing may be happening with Internet addiction. If true, the implications for treatment of IAD could be huge. Not that we’ll see an Internet “patch” anytime soon — far more research needs to be done before this revelation can actually influence therapies — but if the connection can be proven, we could be looking at our first serious break in the mystery of how people get hooked on the Web.