“The computer is like electronic cocaine.”
Peter Whybrow, director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, argues the Internet is like “electronic cocaine,” fueling cycles of mania followed by depressive stretches, in our cover story on the Web making us crazy.
Newsweek has a cover story up today entitled “Is the Web Driving Us Mad?” that’s got my white matter in a bit of a tizzy. I should say that I love Newsweek, especially the Tumblr folks past and present, but this article has got my science spidey sense extremely tingly.
The concern over negative behaviors linked to internet use is not a new one. Earlier this year, Sherry Turkle talked about it at TED (in what I thought was one of the least convincing TED talks of the year), and she predictably makes her way into the article within the first few paragraphs. We also have the requisite “shock story” of Kony 2012 creator Jason Russell’s crack-up.
Later we come to an opinion from Baroness Susan Greenfield, the British pharmacology researcher who I’ll let Ben Goldacre tell you all about (why won’t you publish your ideas in a journal, Baroness?). It’s only a couple more paragraphs until we reach the kicker: The quote above, implying that compulsive internet use is somehow like cocaine.
Let’s just accept that there are very negative, very compulsive behaviors associated with internet use in some people. But that is not the same as cocaine, or any other chemical addiction. ‘There’s dopamine and stuff!’, you may say. That means we are getting pleasure from it, and that pleasure can drive addiction, right? It’s not that simple. As Vaughan Bell wrote in Slate, back in 2009 (you should read the whole thing):
There’s no direct one-to-one relationship between dopamine and addiction, and knowing that this particular brain chemical is released during an activity predicts nothing about how problematic the activity might be. As the dopamine system starts working when we encounter anything pleasurable, the popular myth would suggest everything we like could be addictive: reading books, scratching an itch, building model steamships out of matchsticks, whatever floats your boat.
“Internet addiction disorder” will be included in the new DSM next year (the “psychiatric bible”), but in an appendix for further study. It is hardly an accepted condition on its own. Could it be linked to, or a symptom of, other disorders like ADHD? The Neuroskeptic blog says that link is weak, if not completely false (trashing Greenfield again, I might add).
There’s not even an accepted definition for what “internet addiction” might be. But many test subjects in this new research have been selected from surveys, which not only skews results toward undergraduates in psych classes, but also to biases of self-reporting.
Claims that images of the brains of these “internet addicts” resemble drug addicts? Well, drug addiction is hardly just one thing, as drugs like alcohol and cocaine act on the brain in very unique and different ways. We also know that brain imaging studies, while potentially very powerful, should be taken with snowball-size grains of salt. I mean, fMRI can detect brain activity in a dead fish if not done in a very particular way.
Here’s the takeaway … don’t be this guy: “I point at a brain chemical like dopamine, I point to a very loosely defined compulsive behavior like using the internet in an uncontrollable way, I point to some very limited brain imaging studies and I point to addiction.”
New technology can be very disruptive. It’s natural that we are maybe a little uncomfortable with how open and permanently “on” the new digital world has become. It’s also natural that some people will not mesh well with that system. But taking a compulsive behavior that we can’t even define, much less understand, and lumping it in with a catchall word like “addiction” does nothing to help any of us. The article does get it right that the “correlation vs. causation” is pretty unknown for all of this, but it’s stuck in between too much techno-scare to really matter.
We would be better served by not masking the concerns of this still-new wired era with words like “addiction”, and instead asking how we can better help those who are isolated, depressed or out of control, whether they are plugged in or not.
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