‘Internet addiction’ built on foundations of sand

A study just published in the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior has reviewed all of the available scientific studies on internet addiction and found them to be mostly crap. And not just slightly lacking, really pretty awful.

To quote from the research summary:

The analysis showed that previous studies have utilized inconsistent criteria to define Internet addicts, applied recruiting methods that may cause serious sampling bias, and examined data using primarily exploratory rather than confirmatory data analysis techniques to investigate the degree of association rather than causal relationships among variables.

Rather disappointingly though, the authors just suggest that better research is needed when it’s quite obvious that the whole concept is fundamentally flawed.

So badly flawed that it’s a logical fallacy, a category error, in fact. To revisit the point, the internet is a medium of communication and it is not possible to be addicted to a medium of communication because the medium does not specify an activity.

It’s like saying someone is a ‘language addict’ or is ‘addicted’ to transport. It just makes no sense.

Unfortunately, none of the so-called diagnostic scales or indeed, researchers, actually get this point, so it’s perfectly possible to be diagnosed with internet addiction if you’re putting in a lot of long-stressful hours running a business. If you use the internet to communicate with your employees that is.

If, on the other hand, you’re putting in a lot of long-stressful hours running a business and you use an alternative medium of communication, then you’re not an internet addict. Same motivations, same emotional impact, same psychological effect. But if you use the internet you have a mental illness, and if you don’t, well, you don’t.

You can switch ‘running a business’ for anything that is stressful, preoccupying and intrusive (following a sports team perhaps) and if you use the internet as a tool, you’re diagnosable.

At least with the current methods – which, it turns out, are not even based on even a semblance of scientific reliability.

This is not to say that there aren’t people who use the internet excessively to the detriment of themselves and their families. But there are people who follow football in a similarly problematic way, and people who spend too much time going to folk concerts, and people who can’t tear themselves away from the stock market.

This doesn’t make them addicts and the sooner we stop trying to apply addiction to people as a clumsy way to trying to avoid the language of blame the quicker we can tackle their social and emotional difficulties in a more relevant and appropriate way.

There’s a good write-up from Dr Shock and another on PsychCentral both of which I recommend as antidotes to the internet addiction foolishness.

Link to study.
Link to DOI entry for same.

9 thoughts on “‘Internet addiction’ built on foundations of sand”

  1. “Addicted to …” is a trope that is in danger of becoming so cliched no one can use it with a straight face any more. It’s more worrying that it is taken seriously by grown up psychologists.
    I suspect that it is not only a false syllogism, but a false syllogism built on two potentially shaky assumptions:
    1) Addiction is a disease (in some respects)
    2) Any compulsive appetitive behaviour is addiction (really?)
    3) Therefore any compulsive behaviour is a disease, and “out of my control”

  2. I run into this kind of comments occasionally, and they seem to entangle two distinct points.
    First is about the incorrect use of language.
    For majority of people, web is the internet. Thus, in everyday language “internet addiction” means addiction to the activity of using the web, not addiction to the medium.
    Of course this use is incorrect, but your anger seems disproportional. People and especially newspaper abuse language constantly. Why is this one case so important?
    It seems to me that the best way to combat improper language use is to promote a more accurate term. Perhaps you should suggest better term to use? Would “web use addiction” make you happy?
    Please note that a concept or term can exist in language regardless of whether such addiction “really exists”, or whether the accurate term is helpful way to conceptualize some phenomena.
    I think one reason why term “internet addiction” has become so popular is because it is intuitive way for layman to describe some common phenomena. Having well-defined concept helps us better to argue and experiment whether some phenomena really exists or not.
    Second point in your comment seems to be, if I understand it correctly, that behavioral patterns in web use are not that much different from behavioral patterns in other activities. Although some people may use the web so much that it disturbs their social relationships and other commitments, this applies to almost anything, for example watching football.
    But I have not yet seen any evidence to back up this claim. My own experience watching myself browse the web seems to contradict this claim. When using the web, I occasionally seem to engage in pattern of behavior which I think is distinct from my other patterns of behavior.
    To be honest, I have to admit that I got rid of television five years ago because I felt I could not control how much I watched it. I was less self-reflective at that time, so I cannot remember accurately, but I have a feeling that perhaps channel surfing is similar behavioral pattern to what I am occasionally enganing on the web.
    Among my friends the name for this behavioral pattern is “getting stuck in web loop”. It is very similar to channel surfing in that you have a list of web sites, and then you loop through them, starting from beginning when you reach the end. I can get stuck ifor hours, but it is never my conscious decision. On the contrary, I have several strategies (derived from addiction research) to prevent myself from this. My browser has child controls that prevent me from going to certain web sites. When I need to get work done, I disconnct myself from the internet. A friend of mine has done several “blog-free months”.

  3. Stephen, very good point. Not all compulsive behavior is necessarily addiction. However, practical experiences from helping people to cope with their addictions as well as theoretical results from addiction research could help regular people to control their compulsive behaviors regardless what name we use for them.
    Even having a “real” addiction does not mean that it is ultimately out of your control. People are free to choose their environment, and environment influences your compulsive behavior. For example I got rid of television, or AA encourages people to change their social circle.
    But people can utilize this “free will” and choose their environment only if they recognize that their behavior is compulsive, and they are not fully controlling their behavior.

  4. Hi Mikko,
    It is not the newspapers abusing language that worries me, it is researchers.
    The web and the internet are not synonymous and neither are they treated as synonymous in the scales that supposedly measure the phenomena.
    You are also using the term ‘web’ so vaguely it is meaningless because there is no single activity that that phrase ‘using the web’ describes. Are you suggesting that using an iPhone, downloading software, writing code and watching YouTube videos are so similar that if one is ‘addicted’ to the internet any of these will suffice to satify the ‘addict’?
    Obviously not, so even the concept of ‘web addiction’ is too vague to be meaningful, because like the internet, the web is a medium, not an activity.
    An intuitive way to describe something is not the basis for a scientific concept. Compulsion control helps people with many forms of behavioural problem (OCD, violence, paraphilias) but that doesn’t mean all of these problems are addictions and thinking about them as such is ultimately unhelpful even if one element of the difficulty responds to a similar line of treatment.
    My other point is that the web is a tool. So you can watch football to excess on the TV or via the web. Using the web to do this does not mean your problem is an addiction to the internet. It is still a problem with compulsive football viewing and the motivations for doing so.
    The current concepts do not make this distinction and so are unhelpful and misleading.

  5. The language mix up is of importance but this publication is about researchers with rating scales that don’t stand up to scientific standards.
    Professionals trying to define “a disease” that certainly appeal to mass media and those institutions that support them financially.
    Their research design doesn’t justify some of the conclusions, these are preliminary.
    Another more semantic and philosophical standpoint can be read here: http://tinyurl.com/3p4e5c by the last psychiatrist

  6. Vaughan, thanks for the clarification.
    There seems to be three unique but overlapping uses of the word “addiction”. Wikipedia article clarified these to me:
    “In medical terminology, an addiction is a state in which the body relies on a substance for normal functioning and develops physical dependence, as in drug addiction. When the drug or substance on which someone is dependent is suddenly removed, it will cause withdrawal, a characteristic set of signs and symptoms. Addiction is generally associated with increased drug tolerance. In physiological terms, addiction is not necessarily associated with substance abuse since this form of addiction can result from using medication as prescribed by a doctor.
    However, common usage of the term addiction has spread to include psychological dependence. In this context, the term is used in drug addiction and substance abuse problems, but also refers to behaviors that are not generally recognized by the medical community as problems of addiction, such as compulsive overeating.
    The term addiction is also sometimes applied to compulsions that are not substance-related, such as problem gambling and computer addiction. In these kinds of common usages, the term addiction is used to describe a recurring compulsion by an individual to engage in some specific activity, despite harmful consequences to the individual’s health, mental state or social life.”
    I understand that your point is that researchers should avoid using terms from the third category for research. It is perfectly valid point and I agree.
    I also agree with Dr. Shock above that sloppy research should not be tolerated.
    However, I also get the vague feeling that we are really talking about something else than semantics, like pointed out in the comments from Dr. Shock’s link. It seems that our discussion is also about whether the phenomenon behind this term really exists or not.
    Bakker, quoted in the article referenced by Last Psychiatrist claims that perhaps 90% of compulsive computer game players are not addicts. This means that they could suffer from “disease-model of internet addiction”.
    But that would leave 10% who Bekker feels could be helped by addiction counseling. Blanket statements such as “internet addiction does not exist” can delay these people from getting into addiction counseling.

  7. Hi Mikko,
    I understand your point, but you’re basing your argument on a vague definition and the opinion of one person when we should be basing it on sound theories and hard data.
    People with OCD do not have ‘hand washing addiction’ and addiction counselling will be of limited benefit compared to evidence-based treatments for the specific problem.
    There is no doubt that some people need help. I am not advocating that all people currently labelled as ‘internet addicts’ do not have a problem. Some obviously do, but misunderstanding the problem and misapplying treatments should be avoided because it not only stops people form getting the help they need, but it gives people inappropriate treatments, which can be much worse.

  8. Apologies if you have mentioned this elsewhere on your site, though I can’t see if you have, but that Byun et al. (2008) study should really be read in alongside a meta-synthesis of qualitative research in internet addiction by the same team (ref & link below).

    Without getting into too much detail, that paper concludes by proposing a conceptual model of internet addiction – something which I doubt the authors would do if they agreed with your characterisation of it as ‘foolishness’.

    Douglas A.C., Mills J.E., Niang M., Stepchenkova S., Byun S., Ruffini C., Lee S.K., Blanton M. (2008) Internet addiction: Meta-synthesis of qualitative research for the decade 1996-2006. Computers in Human Behavior, 24(6), 3027-3044.


  9. Hi Ciarán,

    The link to the full-text has since been taken down but the DOI link at the bottom of the page is permanent and is to the full reference which works fine.

    Apart from the dreadful research, the main problem with internet addiction is largely a conceptual one though.

    It is impossible to be addicted to a medium of communication (it’s a category error) and logical impossibility because there is no one specific behaviour associated with internet communication.

    As I mention in the post, the problem with the ‘internet addiction’ concept is is that anyone who is highly preoccupied with any task will come out as ‘addicted’ on the scales if they use the internet, but will not if they use another medium of communication to achieve the task.

    I give the example of running a business but any task or job will do.

    Similarly, all specific tasks (gaming, chat etc etc) can be completed without using the internet, or on private networks not online, and indeed were before the internet was widely available.

    Basing concepts on logical impossibilities does indeed seem foolish to me.

    People concerned about unhealthy use of technology need to better conceptualise the problems.

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