Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Internet, Video Games, and TV: Addictions or Cognitive Enhancers?

I'll introduce this post with my opinion on this issue:

Almost any human activity can be addictive, in a harmful way. That is, the activity could provide a mental reward which leads to the following pattern:
- the activity happens more frequently
- tolerance develops
- increased absorption with the activity develops, in order to achieve the same or greater reward
- other activities feel more boring or unrewarding
- other activities & relationships are neglected
- physical harm may result from sleep deprivation, sedentary behaviour, repetitive strain, reduced self-care, etc.
- social harm may result from relationship neglect or isolation, but also from associating with a cohort of fellow "addicts" who do the same behaviours
- the "mental reward" could probably correlate with functional brain imaging demonstrating increased activity of central dopaminergic reward circuits

Many "good" activities could lead to an addictive pattern. Here's a list of possible activities that can potentially become addictive in this sense:
1) work
2) earning money
3) studying
4) hobbies
5) house chores
6) talking or texting on phones or other electronic devices
7) being in the company of people, or of a particular person
8) sports (playing or watching)
9) reading
10) pursuing excellence

Sometimes, behaviours or thoughts associated with depression or low self-esteem can be "addictive", in that some people may feel a type of masochistic reward from them.

Individuals may not recognize the unhealthy or addictive components of their behaviours. For a person wanting to earn more money, or pursue more excellence, it may seem absurd, and contrary to that person's values, to consider backing away from these pursuits.

For the person "pursuing excellence," it may be true that pouring more time and energy into training might increase achievement in a short-term sense. But this is the addictive trap. In order to pursue excellence in the most effective way, a balanced lifestyle is necessary. In order to achieve that balanced lifestyle, that person may paradoxically need to back away from their immediate pursuit.

I think that all types of modern technology have the potential to be addictive.

Technology and technological culture are changing at an unprecedented pace. And the technologies have ever more powerful and subtle ways to capture our interest, attention, and to stimulate neural reward.

All technological inventions have become addictive for some people. Yet most of these inventions have also contributed to an evolution of modern culture, which has been positive in many ways.

The internet, TV, and video games can all be stimulating, educational activities, which could enhance brain function, intelligence, and could lead to improved social relationships. They could be devices which improve relatedness rather than foster alienation.

Some of these technologies may permit an individual with problems such as a social skills difficulty to explore social connectedness in a different way. In this way, the internet can be an expansion of human connectedness and community. It is a technology which continues the trend of increased potential connectedness through human history. Thousands of years ago, it would have been hard to meet anyone who lived any farther away than the next village. While many individuals would have thrived socially in isolated village culture, some individuals would have been alienated.

Yet technological devices can be easily addictive. And the huge availability of choice in modern technology may permit an individual to find a particular thing that absorbs attention, and disappear into that activity while general physical, social, and mental health deteriorates. There is also a lot of choice available that has violent content, or which creates only an illusion of connection, while none really exists. Facebook or other social connection applications can become preoccupations for many people. While such sites could facilitate social connection, they could also be such a preoccupation that actual social relationships are neglected. The "network" itself could become a meaningless connection of distant acquaintances, yet the preoccupied individual may believe that expanding the network further is a valid solution to this problem. This is not unlike various neurotic social behaviours that exist outside of modern technology: people have always had collections of social behaviours which they believed to be useful, but in fact caused increased social distance & loneliness (e.g. vain behaviours, talking a lot without listening, etc.).

The thing that I believe distinguishes addictions to modern technology from other types of addiction is that many individuals are unquestioningly adopting the technologies as major parts of their daily lives, without being aware of the addictive potential, and without maintaining balance in other parts of life. While everything in life can be addictive, we have a greater understanding of non-technological addiction, since these phenomena have developed more slowly over past decades or centuries. New technology is changing personal culture so rapidly that we may have little chance to understand the risks before the addictiveness is quite entrenched in many people.

So, in conclusion, I do not believe that modern technology, including internet, TV, or video games, are necessarily "bad." They may in fact be wonderful, life-enhancing joys which improve happiness, culture, relationships, and connectedness. Yet they have a high risk to be addictive. I do not believe most people understand the degree of risk involved. I encourage people, in the meantime, to choose wisely when using technology, or when doing supposedly "good" activities such as those listed above, perhaps using the following questions:

1) am I doing this just out of a habit, because of boredom, or as part of procrastinating?
2) is this activity enhancing my life, or is it just gobbling up some of my time and attention?
3) is this activity improving my community, or is it distracting energy away from healthy community?
4) is this activity causing me physical harm, due to lack of exercise, or physical overuse?
5) is this activity consistent with my core values?
6) if it is consistent, is it really helping realize those core values?
7) is the activity itself causing my core values to change in an unwelcome way?
8) is the activity distracting energy or time away from other activities (such as learning, developing a talent, practicing a creative art, developing social relationships) which are important to personal culture?
9) do I have boundaries around this activity, in terms of time & energy, that protect my health?

References & Further Reading:
{this is a 2009 study by Kira Bailey et al., giving a good review of data concerning video gaming & cognitive variables; they discuss their own study, which leads to the following conclusion:
"these data may indicate that the video game experience is associated with a decrease in the efficiency of proactive cognitive control that supports one’s ability to maintain goal-directed action when the environment is not intrinsically engaging." In other words, video gaming may lead to an ADHD-like phenomenon}
{a useful review of the subject of technological advancements, in this case specifically regarding gambling technology, looking at whether these advancements constitute increased addictive risk, and if technology to reduce addictive risk is effective. The promise is that the technology itself could evolve--if it is the will of individuals and manufacturers to permit this evolution--to become safer, healthier, and less prone to foster addictive behaviour}
{this 2-year prospective study of adolescents shows that ADHD, depression, social phobia & hostility symptoms are risk factors for developing internet addiction}
{one of many associational studies correlating negative mood & internet/gaming addiction; unfortunately, associational studies are very weak, and do not really answer the question for us of how internet/gaming affects people, since we do not see the directions or strengths of causation}

{a study showing a strong association between addictive internet use and excessive daytime sleepiness}
{a study associating TV & computer use with sedentary behavior in 5-year-olds}
{one of the studies showing enhanced visual attentional skills in video gamers. But I find this a severely limited study which should not be over-interpreted--basically it shows that if you play video games, you become more skilled at a visual attention test that resembles the video games you've been playing. It says nothing about general intelligence, social skills, verbal aptitude, etc. which may well have atrophied in the video gamers}

{a more extensive analysis of cognitive skills in relation to video game playing. But, astonishingly, no cognitive tests were given to assess verbal skills, social skills, etc.; rather the tests were all related to things that seemed to me quite similar to video game tasks--so it is no surprise that the video gamers performed modestly better on some of these! No surprise that playing 1000 hours of Tetris probably will help you mentally rotate 3-d shapes more easily! But at what cost to other social, emotional, and intellectual skills? We need to have prospective studies that do very broad cognitive and psychological evaluations following prolonged exposure to different types of video games. The evaluations must include assessments of emotional state, verbal & non-verbal attention, memory, and reasoning; and they should include assessments of "social intelligence" such as establishing appropriate social communication, empathy, recognition of emotions, etc.}

{a 30-month longitudinal study showing increased aggression and hostile attribution bias in those exposed to violent video games}

{here's a description of an interesting psychotherapeutic application for a video game: in this study, those who played Tetris after watching a disturbing film had fewer flashback symptoms afterwards; it may encourage a tactic of treating those who have recently experienced a traumatic event with cognitive distraction, in order to reduce involuntary intrusive emotional memory of the trauma, and therefore to reduce the chance of developing PTSD. The deliberate, voluntary memory of the traumatic scene was unaffected.}
{an example of using video games to reduce pre-operative anxiety in young children. This sounds like a great idea, which could improve comfort while minimizing medication use in this type of situation.}
{this is a link to a fairly new journal called "CyberPsychology & Behavior", which looks interesting and pertinent}


Anonymous said...

22,000 participants

Internet use and psychological well-being: a meta-analysis.

Found no significant relationship exists between between various Internet uses and measures of psychological well-being. (The d- values were very small.

They were however in the negative direction.(i.e. more internet use has a very, very small negative correlation with well being.)

The effects of all moderators, including type of internet use, indicator of well-being, quality of internet use measure, and participant age and gender were insignificant.

GK said...

Thanks, that's an interesting and valuable reference.

I see the brain as an adaptive organ, which can assimilate a great variety of environmental or cultural phenomena in such a way as to remain in an equilibrium state. Other technical innovations have probably not significantly influenced "well-being" either, including mostly positive innovations such as the telephone or the automobile, and including mostly negative innovations such as cigarettes or fast food.

The questions I have about cultural or technical innovations are more along these lines:
1) are there some individuals whose involvement with these activities would be harmful or excessive just for them? (I believe the answer is yes--but quite possibly these individuals might be prone to unhealthy involvement in some other thing, if the "internet" or some other modern technology was not available. Yet, a necessary therapy in the moment might be to limit internet exposure for that individual, just as a person with alcoholism would need to limit alcohol exposure.)
2) Is the innovation healthy for society in a very long-term, broad, general, cultural way? The automobile, for example, is a wonderful thing, but its ubiquitous use has changed the way cities are designed (more sprawl, less village-like intimate community), massively increased premature death and injury from accidents, contributes to a massive pollution problem, causes frequent drivers to be more sedentary, wastes a lot of energy, and causes our economy to be more dependent on unstable foreign fuel suppliers. These phenomena perhaps needed to be anticipated and minimized, even though the automobile itself has a neutral or even positive impact on "well being", even if 22 000 000 participants were surveyed.