‘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 ‚Äì 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 ‚Äòamplify‚Äô 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.