XBox controller against a red background. How internet gaming disorder and tech addiction affect the brain

How Internet Gaming Disorder and Tech Addiction Affect Your Brain

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As addiction recovery becomes an increasingly important facet of public discourse, it is important to remember the addictions that are swept underneath the rug in comparison to drugs and alcohol. One notable example is internet gaming disorder, or tech/gaming addiction, a condition that can detrimentally affect the day-to-day functioning of people across all walks of life. Contrary to the stereotype of a hormonal teenage boy playing video games in his dark basement, internet gaming disorder can and does affect all age groups. It has a much greater effect on the human brain than one might expect.

What is internet gaming disorder, or tech/gaming addiction?

Although internet gaming disorder is not technically listed as a mental health disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), this condition can be remarkably similar to drug and alcohol addictions. Marc Paulus, who has a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience from the Open University of Catalonia said, “roughly speaking, there are no big differences between video game addiction and other addictions.” Tech and gaming become addictive when the brain begins to rely on this stimulation to enhance one’s mood. Examples of content that could cause this condition include pornography, social media, online gambling, excessive texting, online auctions, and video games. With the constant availability of different forms of media in our modern world, the issue is more pressing than ever before. The effects of these addictions can have a wide range of impacts on one’s brain and daily life, ranging from mild to severe, depending on individual circumstances.

How it impacts the brain

As previously mentioned, the brain processes internet gaming disorder in much the same way it would drugs or alcohol. Receiving likes on an Instagram selfie, beating an opponent in a video game, or winning money gambling online … all of these forms of positive reinforcement release dopamine in the brain. We begin to crave this dopamine, creating the urge for more and more interaction with technology. The brain then decreases its normal dopamine production, relying on external stimulation to produce dopamine. Ultimately, this leads to even more technology consumption, resulting in a damaging feedback loop. 

Internet gaming disorder may also reduce white and gray matter in the brain. White matter is responsible for skills such as thinking quickly and focusing, whereas gray matter is responsible for processing information and decision making. These fatty tissues are decreased by extensive screen time. Furthermore, the brain’s ability to distinguish day from night can be impacted by gaming and technology addiction. Light emitted from gaming screens and phones can cause issues with our sleep-inducing hormones, leading to insomnia and other problems with falling asleep. The brain also becomes more susceptible to memory complications due to this addiction due to shrinkage in the cerebrum and hippocampus. This condition may result in a mental state where one faces greater difficulty recalling personal information, a close friend’s address for example. 

Lastly, but certainly not least, gaming and technology addiction can negatively impact one’s impulse control. If there is one thing that this particular symptom should raise red flags around, it is the possibility of becoming more vulnerable to other forms of addiction while already battling a first. 

Signs of internet gaming disorder

Knowing what we do about gaming/tech addictions and how they impact the brain, we can now transition to what response this may elicit in affected individuals. If a friend or family member begins to exhibit these behaviors such as: 

  • Mood changes
  • Inability to control how much time they spend with technology/gaming
  • The constant need for a new game (or a need to scroll social media to new posts) to keep them stimulated
  • The display of withdrawal-like symptoms when they do not have access to their technologies
  • Disrupted sleeping patterns
  • Neglecting other aspects of their life, such as family, career, etc.

Then it may be time to seek treatment!

A future free of addiction is in your hands.

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Maggie Wallace is an operations intern at Workit Health interested in addiction medicine through the lens of public health. She is excited to continue learning from her experiences at Workit.

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