Does the Internet Really Make Everyone Crazy?

A closer look at the data shows that media claims about the Web making us mad might be justified in newsstand sales, but not by science

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Sociologists call them moral panics — when a population pins its unanchored fear in uncertain times on a selected demon, whether or not the target is really a threat to society. Drugs are a frequent focus of these societal anxiety attacks, but this week, Newsweek tries to foment a classic panic against a more universal foe: the Internet.

Headlined online “Is the Web Driving Us Mad?” the article begins with the story of Jason Russell, the filmmaker behind the “Kony2012″ video about the African cult-leader and warlord Joseph Kony. After the video went viral and suddenly brought Russell international fame, he wound up naked and ranting on a San Diego street corner. To make the case that the Internet caused Russell’s psychotic break, the Newsweek article rapidly generalizes from rare, extreme experiences like Russell’s and wends through a selective reading of the research to argue, in the words of one quoted source, that the Net, “encourages — and even promotes — insanity.”

(MORE: The Internet Knows You’re Depressed, but Can It Help You?)

According to senior writer Tony Dokoupil:

The first good, peer-reviewed research is emerging, and the picture is much gloomier than the trumpet blasts of Web utopians have allowed. The current incarnation of the Internet—portable, social, accelerated, and all-pervasive—may be making us not just dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, even outright psychotic. Our digitized minds can scan like those of drug addicts, and normal people are breaking down in sad and seemingly new ways.

The problem is, this conclusion runs counter to what the research data actually show.

Dokoupil makes much of brain scan studies suggesting that Internet use “rewires” the brain in ways that look similar to changes seen in drug addiction. The reality is that any enjoyable activity leads to changes in the brain’s pleasure regions if a person engages in it frequently enough. Indeed, any activity we perform repeatedly will lead to brain changes: that’s known as learning. Riding a bicycle and playing the violin also rewire the brain, but we don’t choose to refer to these changes as “damage.”

As yet, there is no brain scan that can clearly determine whether certain brain changes signify addiction or simple, harmless enjoyment. Nor can brain scans predict, in the case of addiction, who will be able to regain control over their behavior and who will not.

(MORE: Hooked on Addiction: From Food to Drugs to Internet Porn)

Dokoupil cites a study that scanned 24 people, some experienced Web users and some who were less proficient. He says that the regular users had “fundamentally altered prefrontal cortexes,” but he fails to mention that the research only explored people’s Google use — comparing Google aficionados to newbies. He writes further that just five hours of time spent online (using Google) “rewired” the brains of the new users. This, of course, tells us nothing about addiction: we don’t know if the experienced Google searchers were even having trouble controlling their Internet use, or whether, based on one small study, a tiny bit of experience learning how to search the Web can “rewire” the brain dramatically. If so, then everyone’s addicted — or no one is, and the brain changes are meaningless.

Dokoupil acknowledges that the research linking Web and smartphone use to psychiatric problems cannot show clear cause and effect, but he brushes off this important caveat with quotes from experts who conduct this research and use it to confirm their own clinical observations — in other words, anecdotes, which are an even sketchier source of data — and make causal claims.

In truth, the research linking Internet use to addiction, depression or other behavioral and psychiatric problems simply cannot determine whether being online causes these ills or whether people who are already prone to such problems tend to go online more. In fact, there’s better evidence (not mentioned in the article) that the Internet can be used to treat anxiety and depression than there is suggesting it causes these problems. Randomized controlled trials of online therapy for depression have found it to be as effective as traditional therapy — and only randomized controlled trials, not the observational data cited by Newsweek, can scientifically demonstrate cause and effect.

(MORE: Study: Playing a Video Game Helps Teens Beat Depression)

Dokoupil also approvingly cites an expert who has become a target of widespread ridicule in the science blogosphere for her extreme claims about Internet-related brain damage. Baroness Susan Greenfield, a pharmacology professor at Oxford, told Dokoupil in her typically understated way that the Internet problem “is an issue as important and unprecedented as climate change.”

Greenfield has never published a study on Internet use. The logic behind her claims is often befuddling: for example, this is how she attempted to explain why she believes the Internet has something to do with the recent rise in autism, in a 2011 interview with the Guardian: “I point to the increase in autism and I point to Internet use. That’s all.” Obviously, that is not scientific reasoning, which is why her comments inspired an Internet meme (among other outrage and disdain) that trended on Twitter.

Dr. Ben Goldacre, a leading British science journalist and author of the “Bad Science” blog, sums up the criticisms of Greenfield this way: “[Her ideas] are never set out as a clear hypothesis, in a formal academic publication, with the accompanying evidence and a clear suggestion of what research programmes might be planned to clarify any uncertainties.”

The Newsweek feature also highlights stories from China, Taiwan and Korea, where Internet addiction has been accepted as a genuine psychiatric problem and treatment centers have been set up to deal with it. “Tens of millions of people (and as much as 30 percent of teens) are considered Internet-addicted” in these countries, Dokoupil writes.

Those facts, however, don’t necessarily mean that Internet addiction exists, let alone that it is widespread. Simply naming a disease and treating it doesn’t make it real, no more than the existence of witch hunts proves the existence of witches. Indeed, some of the treatments used for Internet addiction, such as the abusive Internet treatment boot camps in China where several teens have died, suggest how easily the cure can become worse than the disease when unproven therapies for ill-defined problems spring up. (Boot camps have never been shown to help with any form of addiction.)

(MORE: Blogging Helps Socially Awkward Teens)

In fact, while expanding the diagnoses for addiction overall, the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), psychiatry’s diagnostic manual, which will be published next year, rejected Internet addiction as a bona fide disorder. The Newsweek article spun this fact, highlighting instead that Internet addiction “will be included for the first time, albeit in an appendix tagged for “further study.’”

The truth is, we really don’t know much about how our online lives are affecting us. It’s quite possible that Internet use has the deleterious effects critics suggest — certainly some people do have difficulty controlling the amount of time they spend online. But is it the addictive effect of the Internet that keeps us checking our work emails on vacation or during evenings and weekends — or is it the fact that we fear we may lose our jobs if we don’t?

The Internet might indeed be a cause of our societal worries, but not necessarily because we’re addicted to it. And creating a moral panic based on flimsy evidence isn’t going to help, no matter what the real cause of our problems.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

11 comments
zzz05
zzz05

ca 2000: On the Internet, nobody knows you'e a dog.

ca 2012: On the Internet, everybody knows you're crazy as a bedbug, but they can't get away from your incessant postings.

MYusuf Advani
MYusuf Advani

Pornography-sex addiction has become (ON internet)compulsion behaviour for me and I continue to engage despite negative consequences. Please tell me who is the Saviour!

M.H.Advani

breindrein
breindrein

I think that we are exposed to much more ideas on the internet and our ability to add our feedback is way easier which will differ from other viewpoints, which might change our own viewpoints. Input/Output/Input/Ouput/Input/CrazyOutput. The internet has a habit of polarizing people. You don't get a lot of moderate opinions on the net.

IsameldinAbdelrahman
IsameldinAbdelrahman

In places where mouths are shut and freedom is chained  internet is a close friend !for a retired oldie whose hearing remarkably goes down as I'm now it is a winged angel ! truth has many faces

Robert Oscar Lopez
Robert Oscar Lopez

Yes the Internet does. Duh .

Daphne Rawashdeh
Daphne Rawashdeh

Of course, isn't it obvious, look at the rise in obesity and the rise in dubstep. That's all.

Danyz
Danyz

Interesting. This makes me think of my 8 years in Korea. During this time, I saw minimal use of the internet blossom into major use. By the time I left, studies indicated that high percentages of high school and middle school students had viewed internet porn. Of course this would olny be a slice of the totality of what they were viewing online, but behavioral changes began to manifst themselves publically, for example, middle school students becoming loudly abusive if someone nudged them on one of Korea's crowded sidewalks. In the past of course this would have gone practically unperceived as it is a common occurance with such pedestrian congestion. Then too, my university students would remark on behavoral changes they too observed in middle schoolers, one of them saying, "We don't understand their thinking." That this kind of behavioral and social change came so rapidly would have to be attributed, at least in large measure, to vastly increased internet usage. 

Bershawn300
Bershawn300

 Trafficking obscene material: I am mortified that when my iGoogle homepage popped up today, the featured "Spotlight Video" was BEST NUDE SCENES ever with a lurid picture of a woman with the tops of her breasts hanging out and a face like she was in the throes of orgasm.

My children use this computer for Christ sake, and I would like to think that an iGoogle homepage could be safe to pull up without X-rated content flying up in their faces.  

Legally speaking, this is trafficking obscene material.

There should be some places online that are "safe" and porn free!

Effective immediately, I am taking down iGoogle as my homepage, making some other page home, notifying all of my friends and Facebook friends of your lack of boundaries and am going to generally spread my disgust about Google to everyone I meet.

This will probably not mean a hill of beans to your company, but at least I will sleep easy at night knowing I spoke up against this.

Not everybody is impressed with pornography.

I TRIED TO SUBMIT THIS STATEMENT THROUGH OTHER CHANNELS ONLINE AT GOOGLE.  NONE OF THEM WORKED, WHICH IS HOW I ENDED UP SUBMITTING THIS STATEMENT HERE.

I ALSO TRIED TO SUBMIT THE URL FOR GOOGLE in the URL SPACE BOX. HOWEVER, THIS PAGE WOULD NOT LET ME SUBMIT IT, even thought I had written it correctly.

AJT Santos
AJT Santos

Stop watching porn on the same computer your kids use. That should solve your "problem."

Now if only hypocrisy can be solved that easily. 

phonymafkas10
phonymafkas10

maybe if you stopped watching so much porn yourself you wouldn't get a virus that makes porn pop up. just saying