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Scientists and clinicians from Swansea and Milan have found that some people who use the internet a lot experience significant physiological changes such as increased heart rate and blood pressure when they finish using the internet.

A new study from Swansea University in Britain warns that just as the effect drug withdrawal has on drug addicts, people who use the internet a lot may experience significant physiological changes such as increased heart rate and blood pressure when they go offline.

“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,” said study lead Professor Phil Reed,professor at Swansea University in Britain.

The study also proposed that these physiological changes and accompanying increases in anxiety show a state like withdrawal seen for many ‘sedative’ drugs, such as alcohol, cannabis, and heroin, and this state may be responsible for some people’s need to re-engage with their digital devices to reduce these unpleasant feelings.

The study was conducted on 144 participants, aged 18 to 33 years, having their heart rate and blood pressure measured before and after a brief internet session. Their anxiety and self-reported internet-addiction were also assessed. The results showed increases in physiological arousal on terminating the internet session for those with problematically-high internet usage.

There was an average three to four per cent increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and in some cases double that figure, immediately on termination of internet use, compared to before using it, for those with digital-behaviour problems. Although this increase is not enough to be life-threatening, such changes can be associated with feelings of anxiety, and with alterations to the hormonal system that can reduce immune responses.

The study also found that the participants spent an average of 5 hours a day on the internet, with 20% spending over 6 hours a day using the internet. Additionally, over 40% of the sample reported some level of internet-related problem ,acknowledging that they spend too much time online.

There was no difference between men and women in the tendency to show internet addiction. By far the most common reasons for engaging with digital devices were digital communication media, ‘social media’ and shopping.

Over 40 percent of the participants admitted they struggle to switch off from the internet, and that they spend too much time online. This was the same for both genders.

Social media and online shopping were the most visited sites across the board.

Internet users can become addicted to playing online games, gambling and shopping through the feeling it gives them. These online activities can create the feeling of convenience, independence and excitement, which makes the user want to do it again.

Compulsive online gaming, online gambling, and use of online auction sites are all classed as categories of Internet Addiction that are said to often result in financial and job-related problems. Internet users can become easily addicted to these types of online activity, rather than the Internet itself.

Because of the convenience of the Internet, users now have easy and immediate access to gambling, shopping and gaming at any time of day, without the hassles of everyday life (e.g. travelling or queues).

Users are in control of their own online activity. With the use of newer technology such as tablet computers and smartphones,users can go to the bathroom or another private place to engage with the Internet, without others knowing about it.

Internet users often get an excited feeling of a ‘rush’ or a “buzz” that they get when winning an online auction,a video game or online gambling/Gambling, gaming and online bidding all provide positive feedback that can result in addictive behaviour. Users will use the net as a way of gaining this emotion.

Professor Reed said: ‘The growth of digital communication media is fueling the rise of internet use, especially for women. There is now a large amount of evidence documenting the negative effects of overuse on people’s psychology, neurology, and now, in this study, on their physiology. Given this, we have to see a more responsible attitude to the marketing of these products by firms,like we have seen for alcohol and gambling.’

Professor Roberto Truzoli of Milan University, a co-author of the study, added: ‘Whether problematic internet use turns out to be an addiction, involving physiological and psychological withdrawal effects ,or whether compulsions are involved that do not necessitate such withdrawal effects ,is yet to be seen, but these results seem to show that, for some people, it is likely to be an addiction.’

Kimberly Young , a psychologist and world expert on Internet addiction disorder and online behaviour and a founding member of The Centre for On-Line Addiction, claims Internet addiction is a broad term that covers a wide variety of behaviors and impulse control problems.

Young claims this is categorized by five specific subtypes including,Cybersexual addiction: compulsive use of adult websites for cybersex and cyberporn,Cyber-relationship addiction: Over-involvement in online relationships,Net compulsions: Obsessive online gambling, shopping or day-trading,Information overload: Compulsive web surfing or database searches. Computer addiction:Obsessive computer game playing.