Swansea researchers say internet overuse causes serious health risks

A team of scientists and clinicians working in Swansea and Milan has found that people who are addicted to the internet can experience serious health risks.

The experts found that some people who use the internet a lot experience physiological changes such as increased heart rate and blood pressure when they withdraw from their devices.

This ground-breaking study saw 144 participants aged between 18 and 33 have their heart rate and blood pressure tested before and after a brief internet usage session.

Their self-reported internet addiction was also addressed in the study. The results showed significant increases in physiological arousals when they terminated the internet session.

As well as increases in heart rate and blood pressure, the participants also showed feelings of anxiety. That said, there were no similar changes for people who reported no internet-usage problems.

Although these increases aren’t enough to be life-threatening, they can be associated with feelings of depression and reduce immune responses due to alterations to the hormonal system.

The study has been published in international peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, and it’s the first controlled-experimental demonstration of physiological changes caused by internet exposure.

Professor Phil Reed, of Swansea University, said: “We have known for some time that people who are over-dependent on digital devices report feelings of anxiety when they are stopped from using them, but now we can see that these psychological effects are accompanied by actual physiological changes.”

Dr. Lisa Osborne, a clinical researcher and co-author of the study, said: “A problem with experiencing physiological changes like increased heart rate is that they can be misinterpreted as something more physically threatening, especially by those with high levels of anxiety, which can lead to more anxiety, and more need to reduce it.”

The authors also said “over-use can produce negative physiological and psychological changes that may drive people back onto the internet, even when they do not want to engage”.

Professor Reed said: “The individuals in our study used the internet in a fairly typical way, so we are confident that many people who over-use the internet could be affected in the same way.

“However, there are groups who use the internet in other ways, like gamers, perhaps to generate arousal, and the effects of stopping use on their physiology could be different – this is yet to be established”.

Professor Roberto Truzoli of Milan University, a co-author of the study, added: “Problematic internet use turns out to be an addiction is yet to be seen, but these results seem to show that it is likely to be an addiction.”

Image credit: Petr Sejba