Internet game addiction associated with reductions in stress regulation and increases in anxiety levels

Excessive Internet gaming over time can lead to decreased epinephrine and norepinephrine levels, according to a recent study published this March in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. The findings provide evidence of reductions in the autonomic regulation of stress and increases in anxiety levels among adolescents with Internet game addiction.

Internet game addiction is becoming a serious health concern among young people worldwide, with an increasing number of adolescents being considered at risk. It is defined as excessive or compulsive use of games that interferes with daily life, with individuals tending to isolate themselves from social contact and concentrate almost entirely on game activities.

Research has indicated that repetitive and excessive Internet game use may alter the brain structure and functions underlying specific cognitive processes, resulting in cognitive control deficits that lead to Internet gaming addiction. Furthermore, it has been proposed that Internet game addiction is strongly related to stress, which is known to trigger many physiological changes. This is often accompanied by other conditions associated with stress, such as depression, anxiety, or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Normally stress responses help individuals adjust to external and internal stimuli by activating certain systems. One important system, the rapidly acting sympathetic adrenergic system, releases catecholamines, including dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine, which regulate stress-induced activity from sympathetic nerve endings and adrenal glands. Disruptions to the system have been associated with Internet game addiction.

The study, led by Nahyun Kim of Keimyung University College of Nursing, investigated whether there was a comparison between resting-state plasma catecholamine and anxiety levels of Korean male adolescents with Internet game addiction. 230 male high school students in a South Korean city had their blood samples analyzed for dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, as well as answering questionnaires to assess Internet game addiction and anxiety levels.

The results revealed that epinephrine and norepinephrine levels were significantly lower in the Internet game addiction group when compared to a non-addicted group (dopamine levels did not significantly differ between the groups). Anxiety levels of the addicted group were also significantly higher when compared with the non-addicted, although there was no relationship between catecholamine and anxiety levels.

The findings provide evidence that excessive Internet gaming over time can lead to increased anxiety levels, as well as decreased peripheral epinephrine and norepinephrine levels – which alters the autonomic regulation of stress.

The researchers concluded, “Based on these physiological and psychological effects, interventions intended to prevent and treat Internet game addiction should include stabilizing epinephrine, norepinephrine and anxiety levels in adolescents.”