Some people who use the internet a lot experience bodily changes such as increased heart rate and blood pressure when they go offline, a study by scientists from the United Kingdom and Italy has shown. The changes are akin to those seen in people who go off sedatives or opiate drugs, the study stated, suggesting that Problematic Internet Usage should be investigated further and considered a disorder.

The study was published in PLOS one on May 25. The researchers include Dr Phil Reed from Swansea University and Michela Romano, Federica Re, Alessandra Roaro, Lisa A Osborne, Caterina Viganò and Roberto Truzoli of the University of Milan.

Many mental health professionals are currently studying Problematic Internet Use. The American Psychiatric Association has even considered its inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a disorder. But lack of knowledge about the impact of internet cessation on physiological function continues to be a barrier for the classification of Problematic Internet Use, the study said.

Addiction and anxiety

For the study, 144 participants between the ages of 18 and 33 years had their heart rate and blood pressure measured before and after a brief internet session. The researchers also assessed their anxiety and self-reported internet addiction.

“The results showed increases in physiological arousal on terminating the internet session for those with problematically high internet usage,” a press release issued by Swansea University said. “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.”

Based on the findings, the authors hypothesised that the negative physiological and psychological changes may drive people to the internet even when they do not want to engage with it.

The participants in the study spent an average of five hours a day on the internet. There was no difference between men and woman in terms of tendency to show internet addiction, the release said. The most common reason for engaging with digital devices was to browse social media and shopping sites.