Internet Compulsion Disorder: Should We Include It in the DSM?

Just as fast-food executives have capitalized on reward circuitry in our brains, savvy Internet entrepreneurs could influence our every action

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How would a fast-food business executive build a very profitable Internet business? He would use techniques similar to those perfected by McDonald's, Coca Cola, Nestle, and Kraft.

Over hundreds of thousands of years, our hunter-gather ancestors ate diets that were mostly vegetarian and low in fat, salt, and sugar. As a result, the reward systems in our brains created a craving for high-energy fat-rich, sugar-laden, and salty foods. 

By leveraging this reward circuitry, fast-food executives captured a sizable portion of the U.S. population, which now eats almost nothing but junk food. The incidence of obesity has risen from around 15 percent in the 1980s to 30 percent today, and is forecast to rise to 40 percent over the next decade.

The strategic fast-food-executive-turned-Internet-entrepreneur would capitalize on the fact that algorithms for tracking behavior as visitors linger on pages and traverse their way around a site are built into most Internet applications. He would use those results to design products that hijack the neurobiological reward circuitry in our brains. He would learn to bombard customers with enticing alerts and reminders. He would design seductive reward systems. He might give customers virtual credits, based on how continuously they pounded away at a game or stayed glued to a social networking site.

In its current form, the vast majority of us will be able to use the Internet to enhance our lives. But there is already a subset of users unable to cope with the challenges.

In doing so, he would pinpoint the fastest route to our brain's pleasure center.

One of the great things about the Internet is that running an Internet test kitchen is very cheap. Software programs -- including the infamous cookies -- enable application developers to analyze user behavior. Using these tools, the company can not only monitor the crowd's behavior and create products that appeal to large groups but also create experiences designed for the individual. Imagine a recipe tailored to each user with the equivalent of just the right amount of sugar, fat, and salt -- a customized potato chip, burrito, healthy snack, or gummy bear. The food industry, of course, has been designing just such recipes for decades.

There's more good news for the Internet entrepreneur. He won't have to waste a lot of time doing brain research before creating his products. Studies on cigarette, drug, and gambling addiction, along with other forms of compulsive behavior, provide the Internet entrepreneur with yet another design handbook.

The release of the neurotransmitter dopamine acts to turn on the pleasure circuits in our brain. Each inhalation of nicotine generates a small and almost instant dopamine release in our brains -- instant gratification. If this instant-gratification technique works well for cigarettes -- and, many argue, for engineered fast food -- why not use it for video games, Facebook, or instant online dating services?

The right swipe on the touch screen in Angry Birds delivers an instant hit. The constant updating on Facebook pages with interesting tidbits from friends generates the warm feelings that come from close engagement with the "in" crowd. MeetMoi.com will link you up with "singles within a few miles from you who can meet you tonight" -- no need to go through eHarmony's tedious process of communicating with someone before a face-to-face meeting.

Presented by

Bill Davidow is an adviser to Mohr Davidow Ventures and the author of Overconnected: The Promise and Threat of the Internet.

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