Internet addiction linked to white matter differences in teen brains
The researchers, who came from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and other research centers in China, also assessed a range of behavioral features such as addiction, anxiety, emotional disorder, social relationships, family functioning and time management and compared the results from the group diagnosed with IAD with the non-IAD group.
They found the participants in the IAD group performed less well in some of the behavioral assessments, including an additional measure of addiction, a questionnaire that assesses emotional conduct and problems in relationships, and a measure that screens for anxiety-related emotional disorders. Also, when the researchers compared brain regions they observed to be different between the groups with the results of their behavioral assessments, they found that worse (ie less “healthy”) scores on two of the behavioral measures were linked to lower white matter density in two specific brain regions.
The researchers conclude that their findings show IAD is “characterised by impairment of white matter fibres connecting brain regions involved in emotional generation and processing, executive attention, decision making and cognitive control”. At this point we might mistakenly assume that because the researchers found a link between IAD and brain changes, that it was the former that led to the latter.
However, we should bear in mind that this is a a cross-sectional study: the researchers took a “snapshot” at one point in time. They did not follow the participants over a period and they did not establish what their brain structures were like before they became “addicted” to the internet. So we don’t know if the brain changes were already present beforehand and so we can’t rule out whether they led to or contributed to the addiction. There are two other reasons to be cautious about interpreting these results:
Firstly, the number of participants is small, and while the results may show “statistical significance”, we should probably regard them as tentative. Secondly, internet addiction is a relatively new disorder, and while more studies are appearing using the term, it is not clearly defined and universally recognized.