Reduce Internet Addiction with Mindfulness
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“teaching teens to be mindful—through exercises or school programs—might help prevent and treat our modern digital obsession.” – Kira Newman
Over the last few decades, the internet has gone from a rare curiosity to the dominant mode of electronic communications. In fact, it has become a dominant force in daily life, occupying large amounts of time and attention. As useful as the internet may be, it can also produce negative consequences. “Problematic Internet Use” is now considered a behavioral addiction, with almost half of participants in one study considered “Internet addicts”, developing greater levels of “tolerance” and experiencing “withdrawal” and distress when deprived. This phenomenon is so new that there is little understanding of its nature, causes, and consequences and how to treat it.
Mindfulness training has been shown to be helpful with each of the components of addictions, decreasing cravings, impulsiveness, and psychological and physiological responses to stress, and increasing emotion regulation. It is no wonder then that mindfulness training has been found to be effective for the treatment of a variety of addictions. It also has been found to be helpful in overcoming internet and smartphone addictions. But there is a need to further explore the effectiveness of mindfulness training on internet addiction.
In today’s Research News article “Reducing compulsive Internet use and anxiety symptoms via two brief interventions: A comparison between mindfulness and gradual muscle relaxation.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7044623/) Quinones and colleagues recruited adults who lived with a partner, worked more than 40 hours per week, and showed signs of compulsive internet use. They were randomly assigned to a wait-list control group, a mindfulness group, or a gradual relaxation group. The interventions were delivered by 10-minute podcasts of either mindfulness (Headspace) or relaxation daily for 2 weeks. The participants were measured before and after training for compulsive internet use, anxiety, depression, and mindfulness.
They found that in comparison to baseline and the wait-list control group both the mindfulness and relaxation groups had significant reductions in anxiety and depression. Only the mindfulness group had a significant increase in mindfulness. Although both the mindfulness and relaxation groups had significant reductions in compulsive internet use, the mindfulness group had a significantly greater reduction than the relaxation group.
These results suggest that a brief, simple, online training in mindfulness produces greater immediate increases in mindfulness and reductions in compulsive internet use than relaxation training. Both interventions were effective in reducing the negative emotions of anxiety and depression. There is a need, however, to follow-up these findings to determine if the effects are lasting or only temporary immediately after training. But these findings are encouraging and suggest that further research is warranted.
Compulsive internet use is a new phenomenon but like other addictions and compulsions is disruptive of the individual’s life. It is unknown how mindfulness influences compulsive internet use. But it can be speculated that training in paying attention to the present moment may allow for other aspects of life to break into the compulsive focus on the internet and thereby disrupt the compulsion.
So, reduce internet addiction with mindfulness.
“just as technology is increasingly being developed to attract and hold our attention, with mindfulness we can develop the capability to be much more aware of where the spotlight of our attention is being drawn to, and consciously choose to direct and place our attention and energy on an activity of our choosing.” – Neil Trantor
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Quinones, C., & Griffiths, M. D. (2019). Reducing compulsive Internet use and anxiety symptoms via two brief interventions: A comparison between mindfulness and gradual muscle relaxation. Journal of behavioral addictions, 8(3), 530–536. https://doi.org/10.1556/2006.8.2019.45
Compulsive Internet use (CIU) refers to those individuals who experience a loss of control regarding their online use. Although suffered by a minority, a much larger proportion of adults report to be experiencing early signs of CIU, which can become more problematic if sustained over time, especially when used as a coping mechanism for stress. Since compulsive behaviors are characterized by executing behaviors on “automatic pilot,” mindfulness techniques, which help individuals relate more consciously with their environment, could help develop a more adaptive relationship with technology. However, mindfulness interventions are often lengthy hence not ideal for busy individuals with early signs of CIU.
This study tested the effectiveness of a brief mindfulness intervention (10 min a day for 2 weeks) to reduce CIU and anxiety and depression symptoms, in relation to an equivalent length classic arousal descending technique (i.e., gradual-muscle-relaxation), and a wait-list control group.
A randomized controlled trial (RCT) was used with assessments at pre- and post-phases. Participants showing initial signs of CIU were allocated to a mindfulness-group (n = 343), gradual-relaxation (n = 301), or a wait-list control group (n = 350).
The mindfulness and gradual-muscle-relaxation participants were equally effective in reducing anxiety and depression. The mindfulness intervention was more effective reducing CIU symptoms.
Given the large sample sizes of this RCT, these results are promising, although follow-up studies are needed. Considering health hazards of the “always-on-culture” and the popularity of bite-sized learning, the effectiveness of easy-to fit-in daily life health practices is a positive development.