Not everyone who plays video games, texts, or surfs the Net becomes addicted. That’s most certainly true. Our brains as well as genetics seem to explain why. Some people are simply at higher risk of developing an addiction. Looking at my family tree, I have no doubt that I was born with an elevated risk for addiction. Alcohol, marijuana, crack, gambling, and food addiction are some of the known substances and compulsive behaviors that have been problematic or addictive for my family members. Looking at my family, my cyber addictions are no surprise.
While anyone who derives great pleasure from cyber-based behaviors is experiencing an increase of dopamine, compulsive players have brains that make them more vulnerable to craving the dopamine-induced high. These folks are very susceptible to addiction, then, because their dopamine receptors do not work properly and some individuals simply have fewer dopamine receptors. Although scientists do not fully understand the mechanism involved, low levels of dopamine receptors increase a person’s likelihood of becoming addicted, whether to a behavior or a substance. People with normal levels of these receptors do not get the intense feelings of pleasure that an individual with low levels does.
Some pre-existing conditions increase one’s risk for addiction. Variation in certain structures in the brain, for example, is much more well-documented with ADHD. Recent studies also suggest that ADHDers are not only at significantly increased risk for substance abuse, but also for cyber addictions. ADHD individuals have DNA differences that makes them much more susceptible to the addictive allure of Cyberland.
Some strains of rats, for example, seem more inclined to become addicts than others. Not all rats can be induced to develop a drug addiction, even with repeated exposure. But in some rats, the path to addiction is quick and easy. In the case of addiction, what’s true for rats is also true for humans. The varying degrees of vulnerability are believed to result from genetic factors, meaning that some of us are just more susceptible.
Current research studies claim to correlate 50 to 60 percent of addiction to genetics. Many studies demonstrate that if one of your parents is an alcoholic, your chances of becoming an alcoholic increase by one third; if both parents are alcoholic, your chances quadruple. The studies that examine genetic predisposition to addiction have centered primarily on alcoholism, but given the similarities among all addictions, it is not a stretch to propose that one’s genes may also heavily influence whether an individual becomes a cyber addict.
One study showed a particular serotonin transporter gene variant that is prevalent among cyber addicts. The gene, called 5-HTTLPR, appears much more frequently in people who meet criteria for excessive internet use. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter involved in depression, and the study also suggested that cyber junkies often struggle with this menacing condition alongside their addiction. Scientific study is ongoing, as researchers try to pinpoint more specific differences in the brains of cyber addicts.
DNA, however, is not destiny. Even people whose brains and genetic makeup put them at high risk for developing an addiction may not ever do so. Studies of identical twins support this idea: despite matching DNA, their heights, need for glasses, disease susceptibilities, or personalities may differ. How genes reveal themselves varies with different environments, and even within the same environment. The interaction between genes and the environment will certainly receive greater attention in the future.
While you think video games or Facebook may be the problem with your loved one, the roots of the problem may lie in his or her brain. Be mindful of this as you reflect on your reactions and your attempts to get him or her to stop. You may very well be dealing with a person who is predisposed to addiction. We’re not talking here about a 10 year old who won’t come down to dinner because he is almost done with a certain level of his game. We’re talking about someone who has progressively turned away from life and shunted his energies toward the cyber world, causing other aspects of his or her life to severely suffer. If you’re dealing with one of these people, please consider seeking professional help!
- BOOK SIGNING AND TALK at Border’s in downtown Ann Arbor, Sept. 8 at 7PM. Bring friends! I need to pack the place.
 Stoehr, James D. 2006. The Neurobiology of Addiction. 1st ed. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, pp. 22–23, 93.
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 Ju–Yu Yen; Cheng-Fang Yen; Cheng-Sheng Chen; Tze-Chun Tang; Chih-Hung Ko. “The association between adult ADHD symptoms and Internet addiction among college students: the gender difference,” CyberPsychology & Behavior, Apr2009, Vol. 12 Issue 2, p. 187.
 Stoehr, James D. The Neurobiology of Addiction. pp. 67.
 Lee, Young Sik; Han, Doug Hyun; Yang, Kevin C.; Daniels, Melissa A.; Na, Chul; Kee, Baik Seok; Renshaw, Perry F. “Depression-like characteristics of 5HTTLPR polymorphism and temperament in excessive Internet users,” Journal of Affective Disorders, Jul2008, Vol. 109 Issue 1/2, p. 168.
 Legrand, Lisa N., William G. Iacono, and Matt McGue. “Predicting addiction: behavioral genetics uses twins and time to decipher the origins of addiction and learn who is most vulnerable.” American Scientist March-April 2005. 140–7.