The Science of Technology Addiction

Published by Internet Addiction Center on

I have many clients who worry that they (or their children) might be addicted to technology. Smartphone addiction, internet addiction, and video game addiction are becoming more and more common.

In this article, I’ll touch on the question of how technology use affects the brain. But first, let’s talk a bit about dopamine and the brain’s reward pathways.

What is Dopamine?

Dopamine is a brain chemical (or neurotransmitter) that allows nerve cells to communicate with one another. Dopamine is involved in many aspects of our functioning, from memory and higher-order thinking to motivation and physical movement. However, poor old dopamine has gotten a bad reputation in the media lately due to its close involvement with pleasure, addiction and the brain’s reward pathways [2].

What is a Reward Pathway?

This describes a set of interlinked brain structures that are involved in the process of experiencing pleasure. The first is called the ventral tegmental area (VTA). The second is called the nucleus accumbens (NA). The third is called the prefrontal cortex (PFC).

The PFC sits at the front of the brain, just above the forehead. This part of the brain is responsible for complex thinking. The NA and the VTA sit deeper in the brain; and the VTA contains neurons that produce dopamine [2].

Your Brain on Tech

There is a complex neurobiological process at play which explains why you experience technology use as enjoyable. This may also explain why some people are left “hooked” and craving more [3], whether we’re talking about online chats, gambling, gaming, checking stocks, scrolling through Facebook, watching pornography or simply checking your email multiple times each day.  

The process of “addiction” is thought to begin in the VTA, where dopamine is released. The VTA then activates the NA, also causing a dopamine spike in that area. More research is required, but scientists believe that the NA may help create memories about pleasurable experiences (such as getting a like on Facebook) which leads us to seek out those same experiences again [4]. At the same time, the VTA communicates with the PFC, and this explains why people who are high on drugs are more impulsive and less likely to think rationally [5].

If this pattern of activity gets activated over and over, the behavior is thought to become “hardwired”, which is what happens in people who are addicted to, say, gambling or illicit drugs [6]. It’s this finding – that technology may affect the brain in a similar way to drugs – that lends support to the idea that tech use might qualify as an addiction [7].

The Catch

The catch is, however, that the same argument could be made for many other everyday activities. Having sex, winning a bet, eating a pizza or having a cold drink of water all activate dopamine and the reward pathway. This doesn’t provide enough evidence to say for sure that these activities (or tech use) qualify as an addiction [1]! Nonetheless, it is possible that tech use might be powerful enough to create a specific neurological imprint on the brain, in which case we would have to classify tech use as undoubtedly addictive.

The Takeaway

With recent advances in neuroscience, we are gaining a deeper understanding of how technology use affects the brain. Before we can determine for sure whether internet use and gaming lead to addiction in the same way that cocaine and heroin does, we need more research. For now, however, individuals and parents who are concerned should not get caught up in the complex debates about what counts as addiction and what doesn’t. Technology use can and does affect some people in an incredibly detrimental way. If you’re worried that technology use is having a negative impact on your quality of life, seek help from a professional immediately by clicking here to schedule a consultation.

References

1. Pies, R. (2009). Should DSM-V designate “Internet addiction” a mental disorder?. Psychiatry (Edgmont)6(2), 31-37.

2. Adinoff, B. (2004). Neurobiologic processes in drug reward and addiction. Harvard review of psychiatry12(6), 305-320.

3. Serenko, A., & Turel, O. (2015). Integrating technology addiction and use: An empirical investigation of Facebook users. AIS Transactions on Replication Research1(2), 1-18.

4. Di Chiara, G., Bassareo, V., Fenu, S., De Luca, M. A., Spina, L., Cadoni, C., … & Lecca, D. (2004). Dopamine and drug addiction: the nucleus accumbens shell connection. Neuropharmacology47, 227-241.

5. Björklund, A., & Dunnett, S. B. (2007). Dopamine neuron systems in the brain: an update. Trends in neurosciences30(5), 194-202.

6. Kranzler, H. R., & Li, T. K. (2008). What is addiction? Alcohol Research & Health31(2), 93-95.

7. Weinstein, A. M. (2010). Computer and video game addiction—a comparison between game users and non-game users. The American journal of drug and alcohol abuse36(5), 268-276.


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