Saul Rosenthal, PhD

HEALTH PSYCHOLOGIST

Impulsivity and Internet Addiction

A child sees a lollipop in a candy store and grabs it. A driver sees an opening in the next lane and cuts off another driver. A mom sees the latest must-have handbag at the park and within seconds she’s hitting BUY NOW on her phone. Impulsivity always follows the same sequence: I See It. I Want It. I Grab for It. We’ve all been impulsive at one time or another, usually without too many bad consequences. Unfortunately, if a person can’t control their impulsivity, they are likely to get into trouble.

As a specialist in the field of Internet Addiction, I see over and over that it’s this lack of impulse control that is the often-overlooked root cause behind all forms of Problematic Technology Overuse from online porn addiction to compulsive shopping.

It’s easy to see why: The Internet is the virtual playground that feeds on impulsive thinking. In fact, it would be fair to say that our natural impulsivity is the driving force behind the success of the Internet. We see something we want and the Internet makes it really, really easy to get.

How often have you clicked from one link to another, following the promise of something more interesting/useful/fun, until you suddenly realize that much more time has passed than you’d thought? It’s not called the “web” for nothing.

Here’s what’s happening in our brains

When we impulsively pursue something, our concepts of time and priorities change. Impulsive acts are short-lived, distinct events that hyper-focus our attention. For better or worse, the Internet is filled with quickly-achieved targets that provide a taste of satisfaction while frequently promising more if you would just click this one last link…

In the normal brain, this is nothing more than a time-waster, but what about the person who already has difficulties managing their impulsivity? A person who is depressed or anxious and therefore motivated to seek comfort or escape? These are people who are most vulnerable to getting sucked into the vortex of Internet overuse and addictive-like behavior. And, as you might expect, they are the people are most likely to meet the criteria for Internet Addiction. In fact, most studies of Internet Addiction find that anywhere from 85% to 100% of the people who meet criteria also meet criteria for a serious impulsivity problem! Clearly we need to focus on reducing impulsivity as a major component of managing problematic technology use.

How to reign in impulsivity: What works and what doesn’t?

So, what to do about it? By it’s very nature, impulsivity is difficult to change, because change demands the opposite of impulsivity — inhibition. It is possible to teach people strategies to reduce inhibition. The problem is, once impulsivity is triggered, it often overwhelms newly trained strategies that then fall by the wayside.

What if, instead, we could train the brain itself to be a better inhibitor?

For the past few years, I have integrated neurofeedback into my clinical practice. By placing sensors on the patient’s scalp that reads brainwaves, I can monitor brain activity in real time and work with clients to actively change neural pathways.

Declan’s story: Helping a game-addicted teen regain healthy brain activity

A few years ago, I was working with a teenager who was very impulsive, often getting into trouble and reporting that he had no idea how he had gotten there. Like many boys his age, Declan (not his real name) was not much of a talker, but he was into technology. In fact, part of the reason his mother brought him to see me was that he spent hours on his computer playing games and surfing the Net. He really liked the idea of seeing how his brain worked, so we decided to see how neurofeedback might help him.

As you may know, the brain produces electrical signals that vary in strength (voltage) and wavelength (speed or frequency). A common finding for impulsive people is that in the front of the brain, the slow waves are stronger than the fast waves (I know it sounds a bit counter-intuitive for an impulsive person to have a brain that’s ‘too slow,’ but the part of the brain that is under-working is the part that inhibits impulsive behavior). My client fit right into that pattern. His front-brain slow waves were much more powerful than his front-brain fast waves.

I set up a program designed to reinforce the brain whenever it produced stronger fast waves and weaker slow waves at the same time. When both conditions were met, an animation moved and a tone sounded. Because the brain “likes” rewards, it slowly changes its pattern of activity to match the training program. Over time, the front of Declan’s brain began to produce stronger fast waves and weaker slow waves. At the same time, he and his parents reported fewer impulsive incidents. Moreover, he spent less time on the computer because he was better at inhibiting the nonstop draw of gaming and the Internet.

Break this up a bit more? Should this be a second blog post? Something like “coming up next week: How NF can help reduce tech use”

Neurofeedback is a technology that can help reduce technology overuse. 

I like neurofeedback for the same reasons my clients seem drawn to it: it’s good treatment even for clients who don’t like talking in therapy, it helps people gain better control over something that often seems hopelessly out of control and the technology is pretty cool. But most important, it really works.

Neurofeedback has a strong and growing body of research evidence showing that it can help reduce impulsivity, attention problems, anxiety, depression and addiction. These conditions often exist alongside technology overuse. Paul Swingle, a Neurofeedback expert in Canada, is now using it specifically for Internet Addiction. He finds that Internet overuse reduces significantly when Neurofeedback is used to help reduce impulsivity, improve attention and calm the brain down. A calm brain is less impulsive than a hyperactive brain.

Following Dr. Swingle’s model, I’m now using neurofeedback with some of my clients who use technology compulsively. Not surprisingly, they are drawn to neurofeedback because it is itself high tech. However, unlike much of their technology use, neurofeedback is beneficial. As they learn to manage their impulsivity, the pressure to compulsively use technology loosens up.

Technology is easily overused. We all do it. Impulsivity is a risk factor, and the more impulsive a person is, the more vulnerable they are to significant overuse. I’ve added neurofeedback to my arsenal of approaches to reduce Internet addiction because it is a promising tool to help people get their lives back. To learn more about my use of neurofeedback and find out if it might help you or someone you know, visit my site or contact me directly.

December 18th, 2015

Posted In: Internet Addiction

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