Swansea University collaborative research discovers Internet use can increase impulsivity

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Swansea University, the University of Milan, and Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board have conducted research that has revealed that individuals with a problematic use of the Internet become more impulsive after exposure to the Internet.

The association between behavioural and cognitive problems and excessive use of the internet is a growing concern, and the prevalence of such problematic internet usage appears to be increasing. These concerns have prompted the suggestion that a new psychiatric disorder – Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) – should receive further study.

Professor Phil Reed from Swansea University collaborated with Professor Roberto Truzoli and Michela Romano from the University of Milan, and Dr. Lisa A. Osborne from Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board to conduct the study.

Professor Reed said: “This latest study explored the impact of internet exposure on the impulsivity of individuals who reported higher or lower levels of problematic internet behaviours and are the first data to show experimentally the changes of the behaviour of choice as a result of exposure to the Internet.”

Levels of problematic internet use in 60 individuals, with an average age of 24, were measured using the Internet Addiction Test. Participants were exposed to a choice assessment, in which they could choose between a small immediately-delivered outcome (impulsive), a medium-sized outcome with a medium delay (optimal), and a larger longer-delayed outcome (self-controlled).

They were given 15 minutes access to the internet, during which most participants chose to visit social media sites.  They were then presented with the choice test again. It was found that about 30% of the participants had internet problems, with no difference being found between male and female rates of problematic internet use.

After internet exposure however, higher-problem users displayed greater impulsivity than before they used the internet, reflected by a move from self-controlled to impulsive choices, suggesting that individuals reporting internet-related problems become more impulsive after exposure to the internet.

Patterns of behaviour that can be described as ‘impulsive’ are associated with deficits in decision-making and predict engagement in many problematic behaviours such as gambling or pornography usage. 

Additional research has found that individuals who report problems associated with their internet usage also report experiencing severe problems across multiple areas of their lives, including work, social relationships, as well as with their physical and mental health.  Such individuals also report needing to spend increasing amounts of time online to satisfy their internet-related needs.

Professor Reed said: “We are now beginning to see the psychological impacts of internet misuse on a group of young people. 

“These effects include them becoming much more impulsive, and unable to produce long term plans, which is concerning.  Previous work has shown that overuse of the internet reduces ability to study at university, which also fits with problems with long-term planning”.