Teen Internet Addiction Causes Changes to the Brain That Impact Mental Health: Study

Findings come as a growing number of social media lawsuits are being pursued against Meta, Google, TikTok and other companies, alleging that the platforms are intentionally designed to cause internet addiction among teens.

Teens suffering from internet addiction may experience changes to the brain, which can lead to impulsive behavior and attention problems, according to the findings of a new study.

Concerns about the long-term impact of internet addiction have been increasing globally over the past few decades, especially with the accessibility of smartphones and laptops. More people, including teens, are spending hours on the internet each day, and many self-report being addicted to the internet.

Although internet addiction is not currently included in the official classification for mental disorders used by health professionals in the U.S., it has been identified as a public health crisis in a number of other countries.

For teens, internet addiction often stems from hours spent on social media with mindless scrolling, leading to noted increases in depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other problems. There are also now a growing number of social media addiction lawsuits being pursued against the operators of major platforms, including TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and others, alleging that algorithms were intentionally designed to create teen internet addictions, without regard to the permanent damage it may cause.

In findings published this month in the medical journal PLOS Mental Health, researchers from the University College of London in the U.K. may have provided strong support for the damages in these lawsuits, noting that teens with internet addictions experience changes to the neural networks in their brain that affect cognitive control, the value of awards, brain development and motor control.

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The team of researchers, led by Dr. Max L. Y. Chang of the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, reviewed 12 neuroimaging studies conducted in Asia, where internet addiction is recognized, from 2013 to 2022. The studies used brain imaging to focus on the consequences of internet addiction.

The data indicates teens diagnosed with internet addiction showed impairment to several of the brain’s neural networks, including those that impact teen behavior, physical and mental development.

Specifically, the imaging showed internet addiction affects the neural networks that control executive function. Changes to the neurons in those areas can increase addictive behavior or habits.

Researchers said changes to executive function can also cause changes to cognitive control, motor coordination, and determining value systems. This means teens suffering from internet addiction can have trouble with focusing, planning, decision-making, and they may be more impulsive, the researchers concluded. Teens may also have trouble working together compared to teens who do not have internet addiction.

The study also indicated internet addiction disrupted the way different regions within the brain signal and communicate with each other. This is one of the important ways the brain functions, by firing signals to other areas of the brain to lead to thoughts, memories, and daily functions.

Researchers said the changes to the brain may suggest the behaviors, like focusing and motor coordination, can become more difficult to perform and potentially influence development and a teen’s overall well-being. However, they noted that more research needs to be conducted to see if these trends hold true for children in Western countries as well.

“Research on this topic had a low frequency with adolescent samples and were primarily produced in Asian countries,” Chang and his team concluded. “Future research studies of comparing results from Western adolescent samples provide more insight on therapeutic intervention.”

Social Media Lawsuits

The criteria used to clinically diagnose internet addiction in the studies included a preoccupation with the internet, withdrawal symptoms when away from the internet, sacrificing relationships for time to spend on the internet over an extended period of time, and an overall outcome of impairment or distress in the teen’s life.

Many of these symptoms are described in recent social media addiction lawsuits currently being pursued against Meta, Google, TikTok and other companies, which face allegations that they intentionally designed their products to increase young user engagement and create life-long users.

In 2023, 35 states filed a lawsuit against Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, alleging the tactics the social media company uses damage adolescent mental health. A number of individual lawsuits are also being pursued by young adults and parents of teen, alleging the social media giants use algorithms that encourage social media addiction among teens.

With a growing number of complaints being filed against Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and SnapChat throughout the federal court system, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) issued a transfer order in October 2022, establishing a social media addiction lawsuit MDL (multidistrict litigation) before U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers in the Northern District of California.

As part of the pretrial management, the court is currently establishing a bellwether process, in which the parties will begin selecting the first social media addiction lawsuit in the multidistrict litigation to go before a jury sometime by late 2025.

While the outcome of any potential social medical addiction verdicts rendered by juries would not directly impact the hundreds of pending claims, the results will gauge how juries are likely to respond to certain evidence and testimony that will be repeated throughout the litigation. However, if social media addiction settlements are not reached to resolve the claims during the MDL proceedings, each individual lawsuit may later be remanded back to the U.S. District Court where it was originally filed for a future trial.

Image Credit: prima91 - stock.adobe.com

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