Internet addiction is real, researchers in Germany say, and they’ve found a genetic variation that might have something to do with it. The study in question, carried out by the University of Bonn and Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, is published in the September 2012 Journal of Medical Addiction.
The team at Bonn interviewed 843 people and found 132 revealed “problematic behaviour” in how they handle the internet. In other words:
All their thoughts revolve around the internet during the day and they feel their wellbeing is severely impacted if they have to go without it.”
The researchers, teaming up with peers in Mannheim, then compared those problem users to a “healthy” control group and found the problem users more often carried a genetic variation also linked to nicotine addiction.
The variation, on the CHRNA4 gene, affects the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor in the brain. Nicotine from tobacco and acetylcholine produced by the body both fit like a key into that receptor and play a role in activating the brain’s reward system, which releases chemicals to make us feel good after such things as eating, sex or – apparently, in light of this study – checking our Facebook updates.
The findings prove internet addiction isn’t just a “figment of our imagination”, lead author Dr Christian Montag said in a press release. “Researchers and therapists are closing in on it.”
In what might come as a surprise, to those who assume men are more prone to becoming web-obsessed, the variation perhaps linked to internet addiction appeared to occur more frequently in women. “The sex-specific genetic finding may result from a specific subgroup of internet dependency, such as the use of social networks,” Dr Montag suggested.
Further studies will be needed to back up that suggestion and the other findings.