Scientists in Swansea find internet addicts may be ‘conditioned’ by what they view online

Scientists in Swansea and Milan have found that people who report spending too much time on the internet may be conditioned to aspects of the websites that they initially visit after turning on their computers following a break from the internet.

Phil ReedLeading the study, Professor Phil Reed from Swansea University said: “When an internet addict first turns on their computer, it’s like the first cigarette for a heavy smoker after a night’s sleep. The same types of mechanisms are engaged, and it is in those moments when the withdrawal effects go away that these individuals are very vulnerable to being heavily influenced by the material they see.”

In a report of the experiment published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 100 adults were placed into groups that were or were not deprived access to the internet for four hours. After this, they completed psychometric questionnaires, and were asked to name the first colour that they thought of.
All were then given 15 minutes exposure to the internet, and the websites that they visited were recorded. The participants were then asked to again choose a colour, and complete the same questionnaires.

People who scored highly on the Internet Addiction Test reported poor mood and increased anxiety after the deprivation period. These same people also shifted toward choosing the colour most prominent on the websites that they had just visited.

No shift in mood or toward choosing the dominant website colour was seen in lower-problem users or internet non-deprived people. Professor Phil Reed said: “That the internet addicts chose a colour associated with the websites they had just visited suggests that aspects of the websites viewed after a period without the net became positively valued.

“Similar findings have been seen with people who misuse substances, with previous studies showing that a cue associated with any drug that relieves withdrawal becomes positively valued itself. This is the first time though that such an effect has been seen for a behavioural addiction like problematic internet usage.”
The authors of the report, Dr. Lisa A. Osborne of the Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board, Professor Phil Reed of Swansea University, Drs. Michela Romano, Federica Re, Alessandra Roaro, and Professor Roberto Truzoli, of the Università degli Studi di Milano, all agreed that these similarities mean that internet addiction should be given serious consideration as a legitimate problem.

The study also noted that over 25% of those who took the Internet Addiction Test indicated they used the internet so much that they had a mild - or worse - problem in terms of the internet interfering with their lives – commonly called ‘internet addiction’. Problematic internet use was also associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety.

Professor Reed said: “The numbers involved suggest that there are a lot of people who may be unduly and possibly unconsciously influenced by the material that they see when they first turn on their computers, and that there may be a large number of individuals – mostly young – who experience periods of sensitivity to conditioning from the internet without even being aware of it.

“This material may have an extra power relative to the material they see during the rest of the day. That is something of a concern, and needs to be recognised.

“Protecting people from negative material seen on the internet is a key concern for most authorities, with the level of protection varying across countries. The results of this study imply that it is not just what is on the internet that is a problem, but when it is viewed that may also be important, especially for vulnerable individuals.”

The study also noted that the mean number of hours spent per day on the internet is nearly six, with 33% of the participants spending more than six hours per day online. Along with many other reports, these figures show the internet is a growing influence in people’s lives, and that overuse can make individuals vulnerable to depression and anxiety, as well as strongly influenced by the material they see.