Saul Rosenthal, PhD

Boston Area Health Psychologist

One aspect of Internet Addiction (or Problematic Technology Overuse as I call it) that I think deserves attention is the role of impulsivity. Impulsivity follows a 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. A child may see candy in a shop and grab it. A driver might see an opening in the next lane and cut in front of another driver. You might see something you want on the Amazon site and click the One Click Shopping button.

In fact, I think that in many ways our natural impulsivity is a driving force (perhaps the driving force) behind the success of the Internet. We see something we want and the Internet makes it really 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? When we impulsively pursue something, our concepts of time and priority 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…

Normally, these sorts of things aren’t much more than inconvenient. But what about the person who already has difficulties managing their impulsivity? Somebody who might not attend very well in any circumstance. Or 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 it turns out, these are the people who are most likely to meet the criteria for Internet Addiction.

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 tends to overwhelm trained strategies and they 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. Neurofeedback allows me and my client to monitor their brain activity in real time and change it. I place sensors on the scalp that read brain wave activity which in turn is displayed on a screen. A training program basically rewards the types of brain activity we want and ignores the type of activity we do not want. 

Here’s a example: 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, he was not much of a talker, but he was into technology. 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 underworking is the part that inhibits impulsive behavior). My client fit right into that pattern. The ratio of slow to fast wave power was above 3:1 (ADHD is usually about 2:1). 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 it’s pattern of activity, so that it produces stronger fast waves and weaker slow waves. Over time for this client, the ratio of slow to fast waves grew smaller. At the same time, the boy (and perhaps more importantly his parents) reported fewer impulsive incidents.

I like neurofeedback for the same reasons my clients seem drawn to it: it’s good treatment even for people who don’t want to do ‘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.

Mari Swingle, a neurofeedback expert in Canada, has written extensively on Internet Addiction.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.

With Dr. Swingle as a model, I’m starting to use neurofeedback with some of my technology overuse clients. Not surprisingly, they are drawn to neurofeedback because it is high-tech. However, unlike much of their use, neurofeedback provides a beneficial experience. As their impulsivity reduces, they find the pressure to use technology compulsive loosens up. It is a technology that can help reduce their overuse of technology. 

April 22nd, 2015

Posted In: Internet Addiction, Neurofeedback