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Ask Stanford Med: Stanford psychiatrist taking questions on psychological effects of Internet use

Ask Stanford Med: Stanford psychiatrist taking questions on psychological effects of Internet use

Back in 2006, Stanford researchers conducted a first-of-its-kind, telephone-based study to determine if spending too much time online is a prevalent and damaging mental health condition. They found that more than one out of eight Americans exhibited at least one possible sign of problematic Internet use.

Fast forward to today. A recent University of Maryland study suggests that some U.S. college students have an unhealthy relationship with technology and the Internet and exhibit symptoms similar to those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Additionally, Chinese researchers have found that Internet addiction may cause changes in the brain mirroring those seen in people suffering from substance abuse and impulse control disorders. These and related findings have led some to question the Internet’s deleterious effects on the mind and others to voice concern about the powerful lure of technology.

To further explore how excessive Internet use may be harmful to our health, we’ve asked Elias Aboujaoude, MD, director of the Impulse Control Disorders Clinic and the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Clinic at Stanford, to respond to your questions on the topic for this month’s Ask Stanford Med. Aboujaoude’s work focuses on obsessive compulsive disorders and behavioral addictions, including problematic Internet use. He was lead author of the 2006 paper that laid the groundwork to determine if compulsive online activity warranted a medical diagnosis. In his latest book, Aboujaoude explores how our online traits are unconsciously being imported into our offline lives.

Questions can be submitted to Aboujaoude by either sending a tweet that includes the hashtag #AskSUMed or posting your question in the comments section below. We’ll collect questions until Tuesday (Aug. 14) at 5 pm.

When submitting questions, please abide by the following ground rules:

  • Stay on topic
  • Be respectful to the person answering your questions
  • Be respectful to one another in submitting questions
  • Do not monopolize the conversation or post the same question repeatedly
  • Kindly ignore disrespectful or off topic comments
  • Know that Twitter handles and/or names may be used in the responses

Aboujaoude will respond to a selection of the questions submitted, but not all of them, in a future entry on Scope.

Finally – and you may have already guessed this – an answer to any question submitted as part of this feature is meant to offer medical information, not medical advice. These answers are not a basis for any action or inaction, and they’re also not meant to replace the evaluation and determination of your doctor, who will address your specific medical needs and can make a diagnosis and give you the appropriate care.

Previously: Exploring the Internet’s dark side, 9/11: Grieving in the age of social media, Virtually You: The dangerous powers of the E-Personality and Stanford psychiatrist explores how people’s online personas affect their real-world lives
Photo by Federico_Morando

16 Responses to “ Ask Stanford Med: Stanford psychiatrist taking questions on psychological effects of Internet use ”

  1. Caro Says:

    In which way are the changes in the brain, caused by an internet addiction, similar to changes in the brain caused by substance addictions and impulse control disorders?

  2. Sophia Says:

    Does internet use lead to ADHD, with all the instant messaging, distractions?

    or does it just exacerbate an underlying disease?

    Suggestions for increasing productivity and decreasing distraction?

  3. Christian Says:

    Why do certain websites, such as Reddit or Facebook, have tremendous addictive potential as compared to other less addictive websites?
    As a follow-up, how can one effectively manage an account on these addictive websites without developing an addiction?

  4. Matt Says:

    Sophia, I don’t think you understand what ADHD is…it is a genetic disease and isn’t caused by internet use, etc.

  5. Hannah Says:

    Are there differences in the addictive potential between generations/ages? For example, is someone who is 17 yrs old and raised in an age of technology where e-readers replace paper books and text replaces voice converations considered just as “addicted” as someone who is 40 yrs old and not raised in the same tech environment?

  6. Mike McGrath Says:

    Unlike substance addictions where the therapeutic goal may be to eliminate the substance, it seems that the goal for Internet addiction is to moderate but not eliminate the addictive “substance.” How can the patient and therapist work to keep the Internet part of someone’s life in a beneficial way without backsliding into the time-wasting black hole that an online addiction can be?

  7. Catharine Alvarez Says:

    Do you make a distinction between meaningful online social interactions between individuals and obsessive playing of Farmville when studying people’s behavior on social media websites?

    In other words, is all online interaction equal in terms of whether we view it as pathological *amount* of use?

    Finally, are there forms of online interaction which are psychologically and socially beneficial?

  8. Allison Truong Says:

    Often, people replace one addictive behavior with another, can the addiction to internet use be used as a means to an end in helping those with other forms of addiction, i.e. smoking and alcohol?

  9. James Says:

    Is there any evidence that internet addiction is dopaminergic? If not, is there any chemical explanation for it.

    Which psychological disorders are associated with increased internet addition? I’ve heard
    depression is linked.

  10. Cathy Says:

    Can you address the issue of boys with ADHD (tweens and teens) who truly have a game addition (xBox and PS3) and any suggestions for how to enforce limits?

  11. Clinton Wu Says:

    Thanks to Scope and Dr. Aboujaoude for doing this. Christian’s and Mike McGrath’s may also be interested in my question but isn’t it time to stop talking about self-discipline, monitoring and building better habits against digital addiction in a vacuum that doesn’t involve the content consumption vehicles themselves? Yes, there are tools to block things out but shouldn’t there be more platforms that are actually built with the user’s digital health in mind?

    As an internet entrepreneur myself, I imagine consumption sites, apps, and tools that aren’t based off pageviews or time spent (metrics that drive addictive engagement) but rather promote scheduled and timed browsing batches that are finite, not an infinite loop. Discipline cues need to be completely built into the user experience, just like viral cues currently are.

    We may not all be addicted but most of us are overwhelmed and feel anxiety on a daily basis. Happy to talk about this more with anyone, feel free to email me at wu at skim dot me.

  12. Susan Collings Says:

    Which comes first a child’s/teens addictive personality/predisposal to internet addiction or does a child/teen become addicted because of the addictive nature of the internet similar to the effect of nicotine in cigarettes?

    The internet is ubiquitous and would be difficult to remove from a child’s environment. Can internet addiction be prevented? Do you recommend that children/teens be limited/monitored to say 2 hours a day of internet use?

  13. Elaine Says:

    I am wondering if there is necessarily a precedent or predilection toward addiction in the person who is demonstrating all of the criteria for addiction in their internet usage.

  14. BV Says:

    As someone who suffers from depression, I found that when I did have FB, I was constantly posting, looking for ways of acceptance to those that were online- even if these were actual people I did not like offline or would consider as friends in the human world. I found myself getting more depressed as time progressed, and when I was able to recognize that, I deactivated my account… Which leads me to my questions:

    What are the warning signs that a parent should consider, or rather, any one person when it comes to Internet addiction?

    What is considered “safe” when it comes to Internet usage and/or posting about one’s daily activities?

  15. Miriam Says:

    I feel very conflicted about what constitutes normalcy with respect to use of electronics (particularly for the developing brain).
    Are we dealing with an evolutionary phenomenon similar to endlessly TV watching kids of the 50s and 60s who grow up to be respectable, functional and socially capable adults or are we facing the equivalent to hormone replacement therapy or thalidomide where we will not know about the damage until after it is too late.
    I appreciate any insight about how to get individually comfortable with the broad range of possibilities of the presumably (?) yet unknown.

  16. Michelle Brandt Says:

    We are no longer taking questions on this topic.
    -Scope editor


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