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Quitting the Internet Is as Hard as Quitting Drugs, Study Finds

"Never log off" has taken on a whole new meaning.

Gabby Bess

Gabby Bess

Photo by Mauro Grigollo via Stocksy

There are moments—like when the day's takes are particularly bad, there's a scarcity of soothingly cute animals on the timeline, and people have been talking about "covefefe" for over 12 hours—that I question why I chose this life of being so online.

Though it is awful, I just can't stop. When I get home from a long day of looking at the internet and getting mad for work, I go home and enjoy a nice evening of looking at the internet and getting mad for fun. It's certainly unhealthy. Sometimes I think about doing one of those "BRB I'm taking a break from social media don't @ me" posts and logging off for at least a month.

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But a new study suggests it wouldn't that easy to shun Twitter cold-turkey. The study, published in the journal Plos One, found that people with problematic internet use (PIU) exhibited physical withdrawal symptoms when they were offline that were similar to the symptoms of cannabis, alcohol, and opiate withdrawal.

Researchers recruited 144 participants and surveyed them about their internet use. Their mean number of hours spent scrolling per day was around five. About 38 percent of participants said they spent under three hours per day online; 38.9 percent reported spending three to six hours per day online; nine percent reported spending six to nine hours/day online; and 13.9 percent reported spending over nine hours a day looking at a computer screen.

Those hours were primarily dedicated to social media and online shopping, with over 90 percent of the participants reporting that they visited those types of websites. Eighty-four percent of participants said they spent time online doing research. (The participants were college students.)

The participants were then subject to a two-hour period of no internet, followed by a period of 15 minutes in which they were free to browse on their phones. Within two minutes of the internet session ending, the participants' heart rate and blood pressure were measured.

…Cessation of an internet session for higher PIU scorers is such a stressful event.

When that data was analyzed, the researchers found that participants with high PIU showed "greater increased systolic blood pressure and greater increased heart rate after cessation of an internet session" compared to participants with low PIU.

"These cessation-of-internet effects in those with higher PIU are similar to those noted after
termination of many depressant substances, such as alcohol, cannabis, and opiate based
drugs," the study authors write. "The pattern of results from the current study, thus, suggests that those with higher PIU scores may be experiencing withdrawal effects similar to those seen for such 'sedative' substances."

The study also surveyed the participant's psychological state before and after the period of internet use and found that the "removal of internet connection for those with higher PIU scores increased their state anxiety and negative mood." As with drugs, the researchers theorize that the internet, for people who are frequently online, is used to "relieve or escape stress and/or reduce anxiety, either produced by separation from the internet or from pre-existing factors in an individual's life."

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The researchers note that these findings raise concern for the long-term health of people who frequently check the internet—which is increasingly becoming everyone as work, entertainment, school, and lurking exes moves online. "The constant separation, re-connection, and separation, and resultant psychological and physiological stress that this may impart, may impact a range of physiological systems, increasing risks of physical disease, as well as psychological distress," the researchers write. "The current results, especially those related to systolic blood pressure and heart rate, indicate that cessation of an internet session for higher PIU scorers is such a stressful event."

The study's lead author, Phil Reed, a professor at Swansea University, told the Daily Mail that treating social media as a public health issue could be necessary to mitigate the effects of internet addiction. "The growth of digital communication media is fueling the rise of internet use, especially for women. There is now a large amount of evidence documenting the negative effects of overuse on people's psychology, neurology, and now, in this study, on their physiology," Reed said. "Given this, we have to see a more responsible attitude to the marketing of these products by firms—like we have seen for alcohol and gambling."

BRB I'm taking a break from social media don't @ me.