Why there is no such thing as internet addiction

‘Internet addiction’ doesn’t exist. It can’t, because it’s a logical impossibility, a category error, and there’s no good evidence that heavy internet use, in itself, is a risk to mental health.

A paper of mine, just published in the Journal of Mental Health [pdf], describes why, but I’m going to summarise the arguments here because of an infuriating and self-contradictory press release about “Internet addiction disorder” that seems to be all over the internet.

Perhaps the most important point is the concept of ‘internet addiction’ relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of what the internet is.

‘Internet addiction’ researchers conceive of the internet as if it were a set of activities when, in fact, it’s a medium for communication.

People become addicted to substances or activities, but it’s impossible to become addicted to a medium. You can be no more addicted to the internet than you can to language or radio waves.

This is important because the proposed criteria for internet addiction or pathological internet use (there is no accepted classification, contrary to what the press release says) typically make reference to ‘using the internet’ or ‘spending time online’ without reference to any specific activity.

It’s important to specify specific activities, because, as noted above, the concept of a behavioural addiction logically requires one.

It’s also important to make the distinction between something being compulsive, something that you want to do again (commonly, but confusingly, called ‘addictive’ in everyday language), and a fully-fledged behavioural addiction – a mental disorder where you keep doing the activity even when it has serious damaging effects.

The cinema, reading books, going for walks, chatting to friends and any other enjoyable activity can be compulsive, but it doesn’t make it an addiction, even if it’s a daily time consuming activity and you get pissed off if you can’t do it.

Some online activities are almost universally accepted as being genuinely addictive (e.g. gambling) whereas others are subject to significant debate (e.g. gaming, chat).

This is not to say that some of the people who have been described as having ‘internet addiction’ don’t have any problems or aren’t suffering.

There are definitely people who are dysfunctional in day-to-day life, have significant problems with mood and motivation, and who spend a huge amount of time online.

However, there’s little evidence that heavy internet use actually causes these problems:

Although initial work suggested that time spent online was correlated with a small but significant increase in loneliness and depression (Kraut et al., 1998), subsequent replications and extensions found the reverse (Howard et al., 2001; Moody, 2001; Wastlund et al., 2001) and a follow-up to the original Kraut et al. study found the negative effects were no longer present and that, in contrast, internet use was generally associated with positive effects on communication, social involvement, and well-being (Kraut et al., 2002). A key finding from this latter study was that extroverts generally showed a positive relationship between internet use and social well-being measures, whereas introverts showed the reverse – reporting an increase in isolation and loneliness. It is still not clear why this might be the case, although it has been suggested that the internet might provide tools to ‘amplify’ predispositions (Joinson, 2003), so that extraverts can meet more people and socialise, while introverts can keep them at a distance.

Furthermore, it’s difficult to see why addiction is the best way of understanding these problems.

Addiction researcher Prof Mark Griffiths has outlined some elements that an activity needs to have to be considered addictive, notably salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict and relapse.

He also notes that the proposed description of ‘internet addiction’ does not fulfil these criteria.

The core problem is not using repetitive, extended internet use, or even intrusive thoughts about keeping track of online events (otherwise 90% of the office workforce would be diagnosed), but low mood and social withdrawal.

In Japan, almost exactly the same problems have been named ‘hikkikomori‘. One of the key characteristics of hikkikomori individuals is that they isolate themselves and occupy their time with the internet and video games.

But the Japanese, rather sensibly, identify the core problem as social withdrawal, and the excessive solitary activities as symptoms – just ways in which isolated people try to fill the void.

In fact, this is exactly what a recent study of internet game users found: the driving force behind internet games was less the ‘fun’, the kick of the game if you will, but instead a sense of achievement, freedom and social connectedness.

There’s always a temptation to try and fit fuzzy human problems into comfortable pre-existing categories because it makes us feel useful and qualified to use our existing tools.

Psychiatrists and psychologists have clear and defined treatments for addiction but very little for social withdrawal, because social withdrawal isn’t a diagnosis in itself.

The press release is apparently based on a published paper in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, although it has yet to appear.

It may contain a revolutionary new argument, but I doubt it, as there is not a single study showing that heavy internet use causes the features of an addiction.

And certainly not the supposedly “extreme and menacing” condition that is described as affecting 10% of all internet users.

Link to press-release on Science Daily.
pdf of paper ‘Online Information, Extreme Communities and Internet Therapy: Is the Internet Good for Our Mental Health?’.

23 Comments

  1. Mark(p.s.)
    Posted August 20, 2007 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    I would disagree with your statement “Internet addiction’ doesn’t exist”
    We all have to eat to live, if you eat too much it was called gluttony. Today it’s an eating disorder or some fancy name.
    Some people have an alcoholic drink after work to relax, if you drink too much you can be considered alcoholic.
    Some people occasionally play the lottery for fun, if you play too much and spend all your money you can be considered addictied.
    Addiction is the unhealthy amount of time/effort a person uses “substances or activities”. You wrote “impossible to become addicted to a medium” sorry but I think the “medium” is an activity.

  2. Posted August 20, 2007 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    A behavioural addiction is more than just doing something ‘too much’. People who argue with their family too much are not ‘argument addicts’.
    And it is essential to specify the activity and not the medium. Cash machines use the internet to communicate. Would an ‘internet addict’ fuel their addiction every time they use an ATM?

  3. Mark(p.s.)
    Posted August 20, 2007 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    re:”People who argue too much”
    Sure they are argument addicts, ever heard of rageaholic?
    http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=rageaholic
    re”specify the activity and not the medium” Obviously.Using a cash machine is not realy using the internet, though you could define it as such in technicality.

    • anon
      Posted April 14, 2011 at 2:41 am | Permalink

      rageaholic

      Definition: a person who gets excited by expressing rage; a person prone to extreme anger with little or no provocation

      From Dictionary.com

      Urban Dictionary isn’t really a reliable source

  4. Posted August 20, 2007 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    Cool write-up, I really like the bit on Hikkomori, which I feel is a much better analysis of the problem than the descriptions of ‘internet addiction’ which appear in the American media. I’d like to see ‘internet addiction’ be looked at more as ‘information obsession’, which seems to be more fitting. It can be an obsession with info on social networking sites or through IM/email, with news on sites like Digg, or with statistics about an online game. Computers let us take in far more information than ever before, and I don’t think we really know what impact that’s having on us. Perhaps we will learn more about the processes of learning if this type of research continues.

  5. Posted August 20, 2007 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    Very Good.
    Michel Ferreira

  6. mishigas
    Posted August 20, 2007 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    What are your thoughts about information being addictive much like drugs or alcohol? One can argue that it is the basis for any number of activities which could be viewed as compulsive or addictive. I’m thinking of people that must keep up with their myspace or email with the same need/desire/drive as an alcoholic has for getting their booze or a gambler placing a bet on the big game.
    As an aside, I’ll assume that Robert Palmer, indeed, could not have been addicted to love as stated in his hit song. Love making, on the otherhand, would presumably be a different story.

  7. graatch
    Posted August 21, 2007 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    Just because the internet is a “medium” doesn’t preclude it from being an “activity”.
    Click click click click click.
    Click (instant reward), click (instant reward, click (instant reward), click (instant reward).

  8. graatch
    Posted August 21, 2007 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    Rich wrote: Computers let us take in far more information than ever before, and I don’t think we really know what impact that’s having on us
    Ever read Jorge Luis Borges? ;-)

  9. Posted August 21, 2007 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Interesting dilecticals bits!
    But i’m with Vaughan, though i think Mark (p.s.) has an special moral authority due to his personal trajectorie, but as i said, here, i’m with the professional.
    If we draw the line for addiction in what we are doing copiusly and not what we are doing copiusly and has detrimental effects too in our physical functioning affecting and modifying us, the conceptual boundary for addiction is excesively flawed and wider.
    In so, perhaps, using an argument ad absurdum we are addicted to walk, to read the newspaper, to breath… these things are things we do too much and some change us in very radical ways; am i addct to walk?, i don’t think so!
    If we are addict to internet because using the keyboard, there is an open gate to reinforcing learning or reward processing satisfied or unsatisfed, because of the action of click; we are addict whenever we do something that are prefered for us, such us our hobbies.
    Is it charity volunteerism, playing weekend football, or going to the cinema an addiction (i do not accept as a counterevidence any endogenous realese of endorphins just in time when we do these activities, they are healthy and profitable actvities) and most of the time when we use internet as a medium, is a profitable activity.

  10. Posted August 21, 2007 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    I’ve often wondered about this:
    -The internet has, first and foremost, increased communication among people;
    -Increased communication brings with it an increased range of emotions;
    -So, the more you use the internet [to communicate in some form with people, which may or may not involve playing "computer games"], the more apt you are likely to feel extremes of emotion. Including, but not limited to, depression.
    Having no training in relevant psych-/physiological fields, I’ve no idea whether this is a fallacious progression.

  11. Mark(p.s.)
    Posted August 21, 2007 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    Anibal said “If we draw the line for addiction in what we are doing copiusly and not what we are doing copiusly and has detrimental effects too in our physical functioning affecting and modifying us, the conceptual boundary for addiction is excesively flawed and wider”
    Right, its the amount(of time/effort) in relation to the detrimental effects that defines addiction.
    Detrimental being no longer a properly functioning human.
    Going to the cinema could be considered an addiction if thats all you do, and think about.
    In the psych ward my friend was obsessed with public buses, was this hurting anyone? Is liking buses too much an obsession, addiction or mental illness?
    What is the necessity for defining addiction vs obsession vs mental illness?

  12. Posted August 22, 2007 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    I believe, there is a clear-cut definitional distinction among addiction, obsession and mental illness.
    Neverthless, in the case of addiction this can cause a mental illness by exarcebation dminishig neural circuits and neurotrasmitters outcomes radically changing brain´s structure and then one´s own psychology.
    Obssession according to recent models involve a anomalus functioning within the striatum-thalomocortical pathways causing a uselles urge to do things. And ussulaly obsessions are monothematic (revolves around doing one thing at time, as for example washing hands or counting steps)and are circunscribe (relating spcifically to that)
    These two dimensions are lacking in addiction where the individual typically behaves uncircunsribe and is probable to consumate different behaviours to satisfied his craving, a well defined pshysiological concept for addiction only.
    And mental ilness has not clear definiton because is a polysemantic term with many criteria in use to include many patent symptoms, but all manuals agreed (DSM, ICD…)that is a condition or disorder that reduces what is culturally normal development and functioning, producing a disablity in people.
    As Steven Hyman, Provost of Harvard University and Porfessor of neurobiology claims, maybe the advances in neuroscience help the practicess and users of the health mental system, and society ultimately, with the clinical threatment and undertanding of what is a mental disorder.
    And of course, neuroscience will help defining well what distinghises obsession, addiction and mental disorder.
    Working can cause or producces, without being a workaholic, in ordinary jobs and in common people a porcentage of wasted ammount of time and effort, just to do the job well.
    More than 4 million people in this planet are addicted?

  13. Mark(p.s.)
    Posted August 23, 2007 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    re:Anibal
    my thoughts
    mental illness to my knowledge, is diagnosed through a psychiatrist observing a patient.
    There is no “neural circuits and neurotrasmitters” tests done/sent to a lab.
    Somehow food,work,anger and sex were allowed to be called addictions.”but it is sometimes applied to other compulsions” Wiki
    LOL just found this…
    “Computer addiction is an obsessive addiction to computer use”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computer_addiction

  14. Daniel
    Posted July 7, 2008 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s plain false that internet addiction doesn’t fulfill the standard criteria for addictions. But maybe we’re talking about something different here. I have known MANY people who are internet addicted and some of them formed a group to discuss their problems. These are few examples of how internet addiction affected their life:
    1) Household chores fall behind and the living place become cluttered, dirty, messy. They just can’t find 30 minutes to clean their house or themselves. They don’t invite friends over because the house is too dirty, stinky and just plain unhabitable.
    2) They don’t sleep at night but spend up to 6 hours on the net. Sometimes shutting down the computer make them anxious so they sleep with the computer on. They develop insomnia even if they didn’t have it before.
    3) When they wake up in the morning they run to the pc and connect to the net. Often they’re late for schools or work and don’t have time to wash their teeth or have breakfast, there’s just the internet.
    4) School and work are missed. Familiar problems are invented to spend uninterrupted 24 hours on the internet without bothering eating, washing, studying or working.
    5) They stop going outside because they panick when going to place without a pc. Some of them bought portable pc and wherever they went they would just connect to the internet and ignore everything or everyone else
    6) When the computer breaks they get real panick attacks with tachicardia, convulsions and sweating. They start crying after few hours without an internet connection and only desire to die. As soon as the connection is fixed all the pain and desire to diet is gone and they feel better again.
    7) Many just start losing weight because they can’t bother eating. It’s easier if they live in a family where people prepare food or might notice their strange behavior but when they live alone can go even 3 days straight without eating following by piggy gorging in front of the pc.
    8) A person was hospitalized and after few days in the hospital without internet started to walk again in the hospital park. This person claimed to have realized for the first time in 6 years how much he missed real life, real people, real places and how he felt like someone waking up from a coma
    9) Many internet addicted even stopped paying bills because it took too much time away from their addiction.
    10) If there’s nothing new on the chat rooms, blogs, forums, mail box they just wait for hours, staring at nothing, zapping through your bookmarks waiting for any update or change. Soon they’re past their bad time and a whole day is passed in a second, just doing nothing.
    11) Social friendly people became isolated, anxious and borderline psychotic. Their friends or relatives are worried as they see a person mutating into someone else. Once completely balanced people become aggressive, emotionally overwhelmed, crying over internet debates, insanely preoccupied about what virtual people think of them. Friends and girl/boyfriends start to leave them alone hopelessly and they become lonely and lose contact with the real world.
    12) Even when they can still do other things like working, studying, eating outside … they find themselves totally distracted by the thought of internet, internet debates and internet people to the point of stopping whatever thing they’re doing to find a connection and spend easily 5-6 hours straight on the net. Often they lose their jobs and scholarships and just shut themselves in the house.
    13) Holidays became the best moment to spend 2 weeks on the internet without interruption. They pass on whatever vacation offer with family or friends even if they used to love the sea, the mountain, travelling or whatever. Even Christmas Eve or New Year Eve is spent online and they forget about their family or friends.
    14) They get opinionated, judgemental, fanatical and plain psychotic in a way few would ever think possible. They become a physical and emotional threat for the people around them. They start reasoning and talking as if they were living in the net, looking for debates, categorizing and psychanalizing everything and everyone. They company of people become irrelevant or painful to them and they start hating everyone. They become vetriolic like the worst trolls and become unable to express emotions and feel sick at the thought of touching someone’s else hand or kissing someone on the cheeck.
    I’m talking about normal people.
    People who before their internet addiction never showed any of these behaviors, never had problems being social, having friends, taking care of their house and body, eating regularly, working or studying with care. People who had never been in need of psychological counseling and that everyone recognized as balanced and friendly individuals.

  15. Posted July 7, 2008 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    Daniel,
    It’s not about whether people have problems with what they do online, it’s whether it makes sense to call it an addiction.
    If all the people you mention were doing the same thing online then they would have the same problem. If they are not doing the same thing, then they don’t have the same problem and you need to describe what they’re doing to say what the problem is.
    ‘Using the internet’ does not describe a single activity so it makes no sense to talk about ‘internet addiction’.

  16. Daniel
    Posted July 7, 2008 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    Basically they were doing the same things: reading blogs, debating on forums, chatting on messengers and keeping every one of these activity under strict control waiting for updates.
    When internet was just few pages here and there, almost a small encyclopedia were you could read how to take care of your flowers or about your favorite actors or about a geographical place and so on, these problems didn’t exist. It was just a library in your pc.
    It’s the blogs, newsgroups, forums, messengers, chats that created a definite parallel reality where one could easily isolate in. I have seen people, who never cared about what others think of them, getting frustrated to the point of crying for the comments made by some online entity.
    As long as internet was a library of informative websites it couldn’t take the place of a real life, now it can. You can simply live online. You can consider your online alter-ego the real you and just demolish the person you used to be and its existence in the real world. But it seems that the choice to live a virtual life and ignore the real one has bad consequences as one can’t really take the place of another. The virtual life many of these “addicted” have lived, they claim, felt like an illusion, like time not passing, like things not really happening; then you wake and find out your small cousins have grown up, your parents have aged, your city has transformed and time has passed and you missed it all as in a chronic trance.
    So I can say with certainty that all these “addicted” did the same identical activities online. Those activities that allowed them to create a virtual alter-ego and to let it take over subtly and slowly.
    I see your point. We should be talking about “chat addiction” “blog addiction” “forum addiction” but they all occur together and they’re all activities mediated by the internet.
    But the fact that all these people, when without a connection, had huge psychological and physical withdrawal symptoms, kinds of back up an addiction not to specific activities but to that artificial world they have created. What they feel when they don’t have a connection is what we would feel when locked inside totally unable to get out where the real world we know and interact with is.
    Maybe we should call it “virtual life addiction” or “weblife addiction” to separate the concept of using the net (mostly websites) from the concept of building a parallel and more important life on the net, at the expense of the other pre-existing life.

  17. Chloris
    Posted August 17, 2008 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Daniel: “Online entity”, “virtual people”. So you are saying that these are not real people, real humans, connected through a computer, who are using it to communicate and exchange information, ideas, which is the very basis on which we have established the very definition of civilization?
    I imagine a person would have the same reactions if they were suddenly and irrevocably removed from the very center of a society that they had become extremely attached to and dumped on an empty, alien planet. Humans are social creatures. This is not an addiction. This is just an extreme of human nature.

  18. Derek
    Posted March 26, 2009 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    Instead of “internet addiction”, which is simply to vague, and therefore as Vaughan says, cannot be called a real addiction. A simple generalization needs to exist, in order to find a proper label and description for what is a real addiction. “Online addiction” could be the solution. The internet is a medium, as described by Vaughan, and therefore cannot in itself cause addiction. This medium simply creates access to other things that one can get addicted to ie, porn, gaming, blogging, and email.
    An alcoholic is not addicted the bar, an alcoholic is addicted the to alcohol in the bar. Vaughan, I have not read you‚Äôre article but I think I understand your point. It would be silly to accuse an alcoholic of being addicted to “Joes Pub.”

  19. Ciarán Mc Mahon
    Posted May 5, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Personally, what I find ‘infuriating’ is when links provided, such as those to the author’s paper at the top of this post don’t work! not to mention that no full reference is provided!

    But in all seriousness, what I am concerned with is when a scientist says, before dispassionately treating of the evidence, that something does or doesn’t exist.

    This article reads like a rant, rather than a sober examination of fact

  20. DJK
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    1. I agree that we can’t speak of Internet addiction per sé, but that we must speak of an excessive (potentially addictive) engagement with various activities ON the Internet. This however does NOT mean that people cannot become addicted to engaging in these activities on the Internet.
    2. Discussing causality with regards to “Internet addiction” is similar to the question of whether the hen or the egg came first – you might as well ask yourself whether alcoholism leads to depression and similar psychopathologies or whether it’s their cause. Such arguments don’t help us understand whether “Internet addiction” exist. The fact that there is yet little evidence to suggest that heavy Internet use causes further problems may very well be grounded in that few, if any, longitudinal studies exist SO FAR.
    3. “Internet addiction” has a high probability to be comorbid with further mental problems, just like any other psychopathology.
    4. If one was looking for a full-blown “Internet addiction”, one would look not for excessive engagement, but rather for a significant impairment in the affected individuals’ life and continued use despite these negative consequences.

  21. Tatyana
    Posted July 17, 2012 at 3:18 am | Permalink

    If one was looking for a full-blown “Internet addiction”, one would look not for excessive engagement, but rather for a significant impairment in the affected individuals’ life and continued use despite these negative consequences

    Exactly!!

    That’s the one aspect that’s conviniently overlooked most of the time.

    I might be wrong, but it sure seems to me, (given the history of the term “addiction”, various contexts in which it’s been used and the variety of cultural / sub-cultural perceptions of addiction and addicts), that those using this term “scientifically” in relation to Internet just tell the people what they want to hear. The name always suits the namer/s.

    People want to be called addicts. It doesn’t sound too bad right now.

    It sounds (let’s admit it!) cool, glamorous, dangerous even. It makes good, normal people feel different, not like everybody else, like they belong not with those other regular, boring middle-class folks, but with those dark, mysterious and tragic rock-stars etc.

    Every housewife, every suburban college kid, every guy sitting in the office is now an addict too, a rebel, an outsider. The one that knows what life is all about, the one who’s sure seen it’s darkest side, the one who’s been to hell and back … and all that in the warmth, comfort and safety of their home, their room, their PC and their life.

    Without paying the horrible price that addicts pay, the one that’d make them realise in an instant, how foolish all this false allure is, how untrue.

    Addicts lose everything to their addiction – they lose their families, friends, roof over their heads, their “freedom”, health, and, gradually and very painfully – lives, if you can call it that.

    They live to use and use to live. Continue using in spite of those very, very negative consequences. simply because there’s no choice, to them. Everything else is not an option, whatever this “everything” might be …

    Is there even a comparison here?! Is there anything to really talk about?!

    But people will continue with the “Internet addiction” meme. No matter what

    Maybe they r addicted to those words?

    Example of what I’m talking about:

    This quote is from a blog post by university professor (of philosophy) Justin E. H. Smith, who, it turns out, also likes to call himself an (a Facebook) addict:

    This* is a particular challenge for those of us who are not naturally inclined to moderation, and who know the difference between having a second espresso** and having an addiction.

    * – staying off Facebook or controlling his Facebook cravings
    ** – his academic peers foolishly claim to be “addicted” to espresso, as he states earlier

    It’s after reading this blog entry of his, especially those hilarious words, that I’ve realized – people like to call themselves addicts!! Including, predictably, the more intelligent ones.

  22. Gary Wilson
    Posted October 10, 2012 at 4:41 am | Permalink

    vaughanbell – “If all the people you mention were doing the same thing online then they would have the same problem. If they are not doing the same thing, then they don’t have the same problem and you need to describe what they’re doing to say what the problem is.”

    So vaughnbells definition of addiction is “Doing the same thing” as other addicts.

    Please cite a source on that “rule of addiction”.

    Do all gambling addicts play black jack – and only black jack?

    Do all alcoholics drink vodka, at night, then beat their wives?

    How about assessments used by addiction specialists such as – the four Cs:

    1) Compulsion to use
    2) Continued use in spite of adverse consequences
    3) Inability to Control use
    4) Craving – psychological or physical

    ———————————
    Or the APA’s more extensive quiz.

    Answer yes or no to the following seven questions. You only need to answer yes to one part for that question to count as a positive response.

    1) Tolerance. Has your use increased over time (escalation)?
    2) Withdrawal. When you stop using, have you ever experienced physical or emotional withdrawal?
    3) Difficulty controlling your use. Do you sometimes use more or for a longer time than you would like?
    4) Negative consequences. Have you continued to use even though there have been negative consequences to your mood, self-esteem, health, job, or family?
    5) Neglecting or postponing activities. Have you ever put off or reduced social, recreational, work, or household activities because of your use?
    6) Spending significant time or emotional energy. Have you spent a significant amount of time obtaining, using, concealing, planning, or recovering from your use? Have you spend a lot of time thinking about using? Have you ever concealed or minimized your use?
    7)Desire to cut down. Have you sometimes thought about cutting down or controlling your use? Have you ever made unsuccessful attempts to cut down or control your use?

    If you answered yes to at least 3 of these questions, then you meet the medical definition of addiction. This definition is based on the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV) and the World Health Organization (ICD-10) criteria.


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