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.
The study involved 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. These increases in heart rate and blood pressure were mirrored by increased feelings of anxiety. However, there were no such changes for participants who reported no internet-usage problems.
The study, published in the international peer-reviewed journal, PLOS ONE, is the first controlled-experimental demonstration of physiological changes as a result of internet exposure.
The study lead, 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.”
There was an average 3-4% 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 suggested that these physiological changes and accompanying increases in anxiety indicate 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.
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.”