Internet withdrawal increases heart rate and blood pressure

A study, published in the international peer-reviewed journal, PLOS ONE in May 2017, found that some people 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 less frequent internet usage.

The study 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 withdrawal-like state 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.

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.”

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 social media and shopping.

Source: journals.plos.org/plosone/ Adapted from Medical News Today