While we’ve got used to ‘internet addiction’ popping up in the media from time to time, it has inexplicably been the subject of an editorial in this month’s American Journal of Psychiatry arguing it should be included in the DSM-IV – the next version of the diagnostic manual for psychiatry.
The editorial suggests that we should make ‘internet addiction’ a serious public health issue despite the fact that no-one yet has suggested anything that uniquely distinguishes it from its use as a tool or a source of entertainment.
For example, here are the components that the author, psychiatrist Jerald Block, cites as evidence that someone can become addicted to the internet:
1) excessive use, often associated with a loss of sense of time or a neglect of basic drives, 2) withdrawal, including feelings of anger, tension, and/or depression when the computer is inaccessible, 3) tolerance, including the need for better computer equipment, more software, or more hours of use, and 4) negative repercussions, including arguments, lying, poor achievement, social isolation, and fatigue
Apart from the fact that these and most other supposed criteria make no distinction between using the internet and what the person is using the internet for, it’s easy to see that they don’t describe anything unique to the net.
For example, here are my criteria for ‘sports team addiction':
1) excessive time following games, often associated with a loss of sense of time or a neglect of basic drives, 2) withdrawal, including feelings of anger, tension, and/or depression when team news or matches are inaccessible, 3) tolerance, including the need for better match viewing equipment, more news, or more hours of team-related activity, and 4) negative repercussions, including arguments, lying, poor achievement, social isolation, and fatigue
As more people in the world follow sports teams than have access to the internet, surely this is the more serious problem, especially considering the high levels of violence and alcohol abuse associated with this tragic affliction.
You may, of course, substitute whatever interest you want into the criteria to capture people who are the most motivated to pursue their favourite interest, or who are workaholics who rely on the technology (if you want a retro version, substitute the ‘postal system’ for the internet for a 1908 style communication addiction).
Rather curiously, the editorial mentions the figure that 86% of people with ‘internet addiction’ have another mental illness. What this suggests is that heavy use of the internet is not the major problem that brings people into treatment.
In fact, ‘internet addiction’, however it is defined, is associated with depression and anxiety but no-one has ever found this to be a causal connection.
And in fact, as I mentioned in an earlier article, one of the only longitudinal studies [pdf] on the general population found that internet use is generally associated with positive effects on communication, social involvement, and well-being, although interestingly, those who were already introverts show increased withdrawal.
In other words, the internet is a communication tool and people use it manage their emotional states, like they do with any other technology.
Of course there are some people who are depressed and anxious who use the internet (or follow sports teams, or read books, or watch TV…) to excess, but why we have to describe this as an addiction still completely baffles me.