The concept of being addicted to a digital media device is relatively new but there is little question as to whether Internet use can be addictive. A study conducted by Dr. Kimberly Young in 1997 found that excessive use of the Internet for non-academic and non-professional reasons was associated with detrimental effects to academic and professional performance. My own original study, conducted in cooperation with ABC News in 1999, found that approximately 6% of those who use the Internet seem to do so compulsively, often to a point of serious negative consequences.   We found that there were several key factors that seem to contribute to becoming addicted to these technologies. They are: accessibility, affordability, time distortion, interactivity, anonymity and pleasurable stimulation. This is in addition to the potent presence of a variable ratio reinforcement schedule.

Most pleasurable activities and certain substances that produce pleasure effects, e.g. elevations in the neurotransmitter dopamine, tend to be repeated. The repetition of pleasurable behaviors exists despite any potential negative consequences, and is well established in the literature. What we find with Internet addiction particularly, is that it seems to mimic the same phenomenon that occurs with addiction to gambling. All Internet addictions seem to follow a pattern of variable ratio reinforcement as previously noted. The variable ratio reinforcement schedule simply means that a reward is received by certain Internet behaviors, and that this reward is unpredictable in term of what it’s going to be and when it’s going to be received. With regard to the Internet the reward can come in the form of receiving a desired email/chat response or a desired goal in terms of information, email, or photos/videos–virtually any desired content! With many individuals such reinforcements might come in the form of receiving a desirable pornographic images/videos or explicit sexual chats.

It is irrelevant what the pleasurable stimuli is; the most relevant factor is that the degree of pleasure received is in part mediated by the novelty, unpredictability, and power of that reinforcement. The variability and unpredictability in form or frequency is what produces the strong resistance to extinction—the habit or addiction. This is why people spend hours and hours on the Internet looking for that ‘hit’, all the while rationally knowing that they’re wasting their time. All these pleasurable hits lead to the acceleration of the elevation of dopamine. We know this from research on video game use, when looking at functional MRI’s that the uptake of glucose in the pleasure centers of the brain seems to be linked to perceived pleasure on the Internet.