21/03/2012 06:30 GMT | Updated 20/05/2012 06:12 BST

The Perils of Internet Addiction

In a wonderful article published some time ago in the Atlantic, Nicholas Carr asked the provocative question: Is Google making us stupid? Although it resulted in a long debate amidst academic and media circles across both sides of the pond, there are no visible signs so far that people took his message to heart.

I would recommend that you read Carr's article before proceeding with this post, as I won't be rehearsing the arguments therein made, which I will be presuming here as known or familiar, nor those he advanced in his intriguing book, The Shallows. The question I'm considering here is whether we have become, in our over-reliance upon the online world, also ineluctably addicted to it?

All addictions, be they to substances like alcohol or cocaine, or to activities such as video games or gambling, have certain common, pathognomonic features. Firstly, excessiveness. Most of my friends at the university (and beyond) wake up with a screen, usually with their online 'friends' on a so-called social network, and go to bed with it. They are connected to the web most of their waking hours, and not usually of necessity, but of compulsion; a compulsion that they cannot stop, even when they deeply desire to do so.

Secondly, tolerance. You see this most conspicuously around the moments when Google or Apple release new versions of their hardware or software, and people queueing up to buy (or 'upgrade') their existing devices, barely a few months old and fully functional.

Third, withdrawal symptoms. How many of us get frustrated when the internet connection goes off, even if briefly? And how often do server problems on Facebook, Twitter or Blackberry make it as front-page news on the BBC? The most telling symptom is when my classmates tell me that they would be miserable without the internet, and that I must really be sad and without friends, not being on Facebook, Twitter, and since they introduced their new 'privacy policy,' Google.

Finally, negative impact on quality of life. Refresh your e-mail account or your Facebook page much? Once every ten minutes, or five? Do you compulsively check your Android or iPhone to see if you've got a new message? Missed deadlines, or submitted a rotten work, having spent hours in front of YouTube or Wikipedia, moving from link to link, website to website? Can you still imagine becoming immersed for days on end, without distractions, with Middlemarch or Anna Karenina? Ever had a relationship fall apart over Twitter, or because you're more busy with your online relationships than real ones? It is telling that one of the most downloaded softwares in recent years, especially by academic and creative types, and ironically called Freedom, aims to increase productivity by cutting people off from the web for up to eight hours at a stretch.

Few of us actually stop and think that all this seems symptomatic of a real problem, growing in epidemic proportions. Unnamed and unacknowledged, we remain powerless to address it.

There is no agreed definition of internet addiction, and whether it is a disorder at all is a subject of intense debate among researchers. There is considerable resistance to its inclusion in the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (DSM-V), and some argue that we are on the way to medicalising a mere lack of self-control. Further complications arise from the fact that any apparent web addiction is masked by other illnesses, most commonly depression and anxiety. In fact, excessive online use is so inextricably linked to depression that researchers are unable to separate the cause from its effect, though the likelihood of the direction is from the former to the latter.

There is however much anecdotal evidence to suggest that the phenomenon itself is very real. One study by professors at UCL, which Carr cites, compared the online research habits of people who visited the websites of the British Library and an educational consortium that indexed academic journals. The authors found that participants did not 'read' their articles in any traditional sense of the word. Rather, they hop on from one source to another, rarely reading one article in full, and seldom returning to the original document from which they digressed. "It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense," the researchers conclude.

Meanwhile, evidence has been mounting over the past few years that internet addiction, defined using the criteria mentioned above, that firmly links structural changes in the brain to changes in behavioural patterns. Most of these studies come from China and South Korea, where worries about addiction to video games is intimately related to excessive presence online. But, while one study found microstructural changes to the grey matter, another found a substantial reduction in white matter in those areas of the brain concerned with regulating social and emotional behaviour.

Translated, it means that not only are individual neurones changing their shapes and chemistry, they also form substantially fewer and stronger connections between each other. So, our memories get weaker, our attention spans smaller, and our thought, I'm afraid, more scattered. Indeed, those precise centres of the brain implicated in reward mechanisms and punishment, planning and organisation, appear to be affected in these studies, which would explain both the addictive nature of internet, and its behavioural correlates.

Last year, a much-publicised study in Science found that our reliance on search engines like Google changes the way our brain is wired for memory. Rather than retaining the information we were seeking, we merely retain the details of where the information can be accessed and how. So, instead of remembering a wonderful quotation from Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, we are more likely to remember what search terms to use or which sites are likely to contain it. This is not necessarily bad, the authors argued, but one wonders if any good can come of it. Given the choice, I'd rather remember the quotation than where to find it.

Nor are the effects merely at the level of the brain. Worryingly, the sedentary nature of internet use (and online gaming) has resulted in a significant increase, at least in East Asia, in the number of deaths related to blood clots and other cardiopulmonary problems. South Korean scientists also report that internet addiction affects the capacity of adolescents to learn and perform well, often requiring them to undergo counselling and other forms of treatment. Given that at least a third of the online space is devoted to hardcore pornography, internet addiction also seems to sit uncomfortably with the development of sexual addiction, with the result that, young adults (mostly men) find it harder to forge intimate bonds with others, as the line between fantasy and reality, consent and force, become blurred.

None of this is to sound alarmist. Far be it from me to claim that internet by itself is dangerous, or needs censorship. It has reaped several wonderful consequences, and undoubtedly made research and communication more organised, fast and efficient. Even the most devout of luddites will admit that much. But, the problem seems to stem from the fact that technological advancements proceed at a pace several orders faster than the time we have to contemplate its biological, psychological, and ethical implications. Internet addiction, however you wish to define or describe it, is the most telling symptom yet for us to pause and examine the nature of relationship we have to our digital creations.