Researchers from the Federal Comprehensive Arctic Studies Center of the Urals Department of RAS (based in Arkhangelsk) together with their colleagues from the Republic of Crimea (in Simferopol) are researching the degree of Internet engagement among high school students. There is a possibility that the consequences of Internet overuse can manifest themselves differently in different climate zones, with cognitive style on the Barratt impulsiveness scale being a co-determining factor. The study of neurophysiologic factors of the state of health reveals problems of addiction to (pathological dependence on) the Internet and gives an idea of personal development and social relations of the young generation.
The Internet has established itself in the lives of modern people so rapidly that, in addition to just becoming a means of communication and a gateway for accessing and exchanging various kinds of information, it has become a factor contributing to addiction (pathological dependence) and departure from physical reality into virtual reality.
Russian experts perform diagnostics and monitoring of Internet addiction behavior and the effect a person’s cognitive style may have on such behavior. The risk of Internet addiction in high school students is related to disorders of the vegetative nervous system, therefore scientists carried out a comparative analysis of the structure of the electroencephalogram (EEG) and heart rate variability parameters using BFB training (a method of self-regulation using biological feedback). The researchers additionally determined the rate of brain response to auditory stimuli by reference to the parameters of brain activity biopotentials, as well as the individual’s perceived duration of minute. Ongoing research is now focused on determining the extent to which the effect of a person’s Internet addiction on their physiological systems may depend on different climatic and geographical latitudes, with an ultimate goal of identifying significant prerequisites of addictive behavior and developing recommendations to prevent them from progressing.
Liliya Vladimirovna Poskotinova – Dr. Biol. Sci., Cand. Math. Sci., senior research fellow, head of the Chronobiology Laboratory of the Institute of Physiology of Natural Adaptations, Federal Comprehensive Arctic Studies Center of the Urals Department of RAS, told how the study of neurophysiology indicators of students is able to pinpoint telltale symptoms of Internet-addictive behavior and what the preliminary assessment of their engagement in Internet space is.
What is the motivation for studies in the field of Internet addiction research and/or prevention, in particular due to climatogeographic factors?
“The older generation regards the Internet as unequivocally malevolent. This is a traditional rejection of new technologies, and there are always good reasons to believe so. On the other hand, there are a lot of speculation and outright fantasies. Nevertheless, there is a global trend toward a stance on the dependence on certain forms of behavior. The concept of addiction has by now shifted from dependence on alcohol or drugs with an underlying chemical component toward behavioral addiction, such as the dependence on one’s rigorous adherence to a healthy lifestyle, physical exercise, partying (club addiction), the Internet, etc.
The threshold beyond which involvement ceases to be a purely behavioral feature and progresses into a damaging factor for functional systems is not known and calls for investigation. For example, gambling addiction is already recognized as a disorder. However, doctors are reluctant to include Internet addiction in the international classification of diseases, as the morphofunctional substrate of this disease has not yet been determined – there are only various diagnostic systems determining complexes of addiction symptoms.
Therefore, our first objective is to locate the boundary between health-affecting addiction and a condition where there is a natural transformation of neuronal connections in the central nervous system of people of the modern generation. We see involvement in the Internet space as a sign of our times but do not rule out pathological forms.
Our second objective deals with climate conditions. This is a relatively new topic and we will investigate it. As long as Russian children develop in different climate zones, the resulting societies will also have differences. That has already been well known. Now, how do socialization development traits associated with varying risk of developing Internet addiction fit into this picture? So far we have simply stated that there are some symptoms of such behavior that are slightly more pronounced in northerners than in Crimea residents. It remains to be verified,” Liliya Poskotinova told.
The project, funded by RFBR Grant No. 20-013-00060 “Psychoneurophysiological aspects of the success of cognitive activity in exploring the Internet space and in the formation of Internet addiction disorders in young people” (2020-2022), headed by Doctor of Biological Sciences Liliya Poskotinova, is aimed at identifying the extent to which the risk of Internet addiction among high school students may impact their neurophysiologic indicators. Relevant for scientists are not only those cases where a Internet-dependent behavioral pattern has already development, but also when there is a high risk of its occurrence. The effort involves staff from the Chronobiology Laboratory of the Institute of Physiology of Natural Adaptations, Federal Comprehensive Arctic Studies Center of the Urals Department of RAS (based in Arkhangelsk) and colleagues from scientific and educational institutions of the Republic of Crimea.
Liliya Poskotinova has a special relationship with Crimea due to ancestral ties and scientific traditions. For more than 10 years the scientists from Archangelsk have cooperated with their Crimean colleagues who have always been among the leaders in studying the impact of the geomagnetic field on human health.
“If we are studying the issue of human adaptation in the Arctic, regional comparisons are due. Another of our scientific directions is to study the impact of variations in the Earth’s magnetic field on fluctuations in bioelectric brain and heart activity in residents with different levels of blood pressure, taking into account, among other considerations, the region of their residence. And now our cooperation has expanded to a totally different field – studies of Internet addiction. This was an appropriate shift of focus as our colleagues deal with human psychology and psychophysiology, and Crimea is a unique region in cultural, historical and climatic sense to be contrasted with the Arctic zone", the scientist said.
Experts worked in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District (Nadym City) and the Republic of Crimea (Simferopol) with 10– and 11-graders from general education schools.
“Unlike psychologists and sociologists, we face constraints on sample size: we have a large package of instrumental studies and samples as few as 50-60 people but highly targeted in terms of selection,” Liliya Poskotinova emphasized explaining that “everyone must give his or her consent on participating in the study”. We are not in a position to limit ourselves to anonymous surveys. We need feedback, and we must present an individualized and targeted opinion, as this is related to studies of the response of the brain and heart of a particular person. When we discover certain health conditions, we can recommend that one contacts a health institution. There is only a handful of such individuals and we do not include them in our sample. Generallyб in the course of our studies we attempt to consider every participant as a unique part of the modern society. Even though I am a functional diagnostics physician, I strive to consider this study not only within the framework of the science of physiology but in a somewhat wider sense, from the standpoint of psychology and sociology.”
Do respondents themselves want to know the degree of their Internet addiction?
“Most kids don’t see Internet addiction as a big hindrance. The modern generation has their own opinion on that, but to an outsider they appeared to show some genuine curiosity and interest. Even if a 16–17-year-old person positions themselves as confident, there is still recognition that the Internet is an important environment where the “best version of one’s self” should be presented regardless of the risk of growing addicted.
Our research also discovered a competitive aspect. We assessed the rate of brain response to auditory stimuli, so that kids got the answers and could discuss them among themselves, they were interested in finding out whose reaction was faster. Even though such comparisons are insignificant, they provided a great deal of motivation to participate in our study. Our project also had an educational goal: to explain how a scientific method works and how it can be used. Students who were already set on their future career and decided to opt for studies in psychology, medicine or biology had a particular interest in the methods we used. We discussed the technical points of the methodology with them so that they could understand the possibilities of our method. This is a benchmark for those who would like to engage in scientific activities in the future. The kids could see the professionals at work. That’s our educational mission, too. There is a trend now: academic staff reaches out even to younger schoolchildren, showing the possibilities of the scientific method. This is already practiced actively in schools of Archangelsk. Schoolchildren may not understand some minute issues but they will certainly revisit them in the future as long as they have substantial interest,” Liliya Poskotinova expressed her opinion.
How is Internet addiction diagnosed?
“The first step is to secure informed consent for the study. The second phase is a standardized Chen questionnaire (Chen Internet Addiction Scale, CIAS, 2003). It’s essentially a self-assessment scale. A list of questions purports to determine not much time a person devotes to the Internet but he or she feels when left without the Internet.
The third stage involves a personal interview and health assessment of the subject by our medical specialists (therapists and pediatricians). If necessary, medical documentation is consulted to make it certain that we are not dealing with teenagers with pronounced health changes that could impair the quality of the sample. The next step is to measure height and weight. If the child is still on record with a specialist, we can carry out a study but we will not include its data in the overall sample.
At the fourth stage, psychological tests are performed to determine the cognitive style i.e., what kind of a decision-maker the person is: a quick and erroneous one (impulsive) or a slow-thinking but with few errors (reflexive), or a combination of both. Also estimated is the time management capability: when excitation/inhibition brain processes are consistent in a person, their internal perception of time would approximately match real time. When the error exceeds 10-15 seconds, there must be already some peculiarities of time management. This suggests that a person lives at their own pace, with their own sense of time, which may reflect one of the symptoms of Internet addiction.
The fifth stage is the recording of an electroencephalogram, the rate of brain response to a correct auditory stimulus, and cardiovascular indicators.
At the sixth stage there is a short-term self-regulation training with biological feedback – the control of the heart’s own rhythm. The purpose of this training is to show the participant the possibility to optimize cardiac activity in conditions when a person experiences psychoemotional or physical stress. Upon completion, data is processed and a conclusion is made which is communicated individually to each child, sometimes in the presence of parents. A consolidated anonymized report is also made for the school management for further medical and preventive work, Liliya Poskotinova explained in detail.
Is there a discernible risk group whose members are most vulnerable to Internet addiction?
“Data in literature suggests that Internet addiction is more likely to occur among those exposed to difficult social conditions. However, all participants in our study lived in normal social conditions and had an average socio-economic status so that the data on the impact of climatic conditions on the risk of Internet addiction is as objective as possible,” the researcher stressed.
Scientists have proposed a hypothesis that respondents from northern and southern regions will respond differently to the opportunistic threat of the Internet. A comparative analysis of the results obtained from the survey of students living in Nadym and Simferopol was based on scientific statistical methods and allowed for identical conditions: seasonality (March to early April), age group, equal ratio of boys to girls. Preliminary results show that there is indeed a difference between northerners and southerners as far as Internet addiction is concerned, but a wider coverage of respondents is necessary to include other similar regions of the country. According to Liliya Poskotinova, “an additional dataset is needed, but there is already internal differentiation into subgroups depending on the level of risk of Internet addiction development. We can talk about the peculiarities of neurophysiologic responses in persons with different risks of developing Internet addiction. So far, it is too early to claim strict relationship with climate conditions. We have already assessed the relationship between cognitive style and risk of Internet addiction, and here is the fact: Internet addiction occurs equally among impulsive and reflexive northerners. Among southerners, this risk is more related to impulsivity. Yet, withdrawal symptoms experienced when people have no way to go online are more pronounced in northerners. That is, we have a picture of varying structure of symptoms and psychoemotional mechanisms underlying evolving risk of Internet addiction in persons living in different climatogeographic conditions.”
Using the biological feedback principle, experts have also investigated to which extent teenagers retain their self-regulation abilities. That is, with the help of various sensors and devices, a person saw his heart performance indicators displayed on the monitor and attempted to affect those indicators acting on instruction he/she had received beforehand. The researchers used a proprietary method based on tracking an integral indicator reflecting the heart rhythm and its nervous regulation using the Varikard instrument (developed by Ramena LLC, Ryazan, headed by Yu. N. Semyonov, Cand. Bio. Sci.) and ensuring application of this method by persons with varying levels of Internet addiction risk.
What methods are proposed to prevent Internet addiction?
“We use the self-regulation method: a person sees their indicators (e.g., cardiovascular indicators) on a monitor and can vary them by assuming a particular mood. This is called biocontrol. This self-regulation is impaired in individuals who are more involved in the Internet space. A likely cause is that they have suppressed self-perception of their own body as the focus of their attention is shifted to stories online. Such conditions can lead to respiratory delays, disruption of vascular and muscular tone, hypodynamia, stressed visual sensory system, inhibited blood circulation in organs and tissues leading eventually to a state of hypoxia in the body. And then the person’s consciousness must be restored to match the needs of their own body. We believe that practicing biocontrol with heartbeat rate as the target variable (which is also associated with breathing) will enable the person to minimize problems associated with cardiac function.
Our long-term task is to refine the method we use to provide recommendations to active Internet users in order to optimize their heart activity. Remote learning isn’t a passing fad. Schoolchildren can devote up to 6 hours a day to the Internet, and this may not be prompted by their education needs most of the time.
Sometimes quite a lot of time is spent on entertainment. What do they have to cut short in their time budget? Mostly they sacrifice their night-time sleep. It is our belief that, unfortunately, the modern young people are unable to spend any less time on the Internet. Therefore, methods of rebuilding health reserves are needed for the body to continue to bear this stress. Another preventive measure is more famous and routine – to find oneself a purpose in the real life (offline), in the physical world where there will be no need for such “hanging out” in the networks,” Liliya Poskotinova said.
“Engagement in the Internet space shouldn’t be considered unequivocally as a scourge for humans. We have published the results that demonstrate a high rate of response in certain brain regions in individuals with both a pronounced risk of Internet addiction and an established pattern of the condition. Now we are planning to find out how neurophysiologic mechanisms of information perception and nervous regulation of internal organs are formed in the modern young generation. We are evidencing a unique process of the transformation of neural connections in young people thanks to the Internet and hope that they will gain more than lose from it. And then our human brain will never yield to the notorious “artificial intelligence.” On the contrary, it will be capable of controlling that “intelligence” itself. And our task is to observe and ensure that these pursuits will not harm the health of inquisitive and curious minds,” the research leader said.
To sum up, extended presence on the Internet requires mature mental and neurophysiologic functions, especially in a developing young body, otherwise there is a risk of losing adequate perception of the surrounding reality and harming one’s physical health.