The internet is a wonderland of delightful pleasures: chatting, gaming, gambling, shopping and yes, even sex. For some, however, that may be a problem. With so much to do, with so much at our fingertips, could it be that each of us could cross a line between healthy interactive fun and addiction? When does our delightful internet garden become a hell of compulsion and obsession?
The internet explosion of recent years has been accompanied by cases of ‘extreme’ internet use. There have been high-profile cases in which ‘internet addicted’ teens have been shipped off to rehabilitation camps, tales of out-of-control gambling and pornography addicts getting their fix online, and even caregivers neglecting their charges, all with the blame being placed on the irresistible pull of the web.
But is internet addiction a real concern? Is it a legitimate illness or simply a symptom of a powerful new tool, misunderstood? The term ‘internet addiction disorder’ (IAD), after all, was first coined by Dr Ivan Goldberg as a satire, using the pathological gambling diagnosis as a model to describe ‘internet addiction’ for comic effect.
In 1996, however, Dr. Kimberly S. Young of the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford published a paper which raised the spectre of internet addiction as a legitimate concern. "Several subjects reported feeling ‘completely hooked’ on the internet and felt unable to kick their internet habit,” read the report, with some subjects stating that they "felt unable to live without the Internet for... an extended period of time”. In summing up the study, Young asserted that subjects’ "unsuccessful attempts to gain control may be paralleled to alcoholics who are unable to regulate or stop their excessive drinking despite relationship or occupational problems caused by drinking; or compared to compulsive gamblers who are unable to stop betting despite their excessive financial debts”.
A similar study was conducted by Stanford University School of Medicine in 2006. Both papers were picked up by the media and the term ‘internet addiction’ was widely used to describe the troubling conclusions of both papers.
But is ‘addiction’ an appropriate characterisation of excessive use of the internet? After all, it’s not the internet one becomes addicted to, but rather the specific behaviour that one acts out online, right? The use of the term is certainly a contentious one, and its validity is the subject of much debate between industry professionals.
IS INTERNET ADDICTION REAL?
Martin Cocker, NetSafe’s Executive Director, is wary of taking these studies to mean that certain kinds of internet use are comparable to other addictive behaviours.
"I don’t think we support the concept of ‘internet addiction’,” he says.
"What we know is that there are certain activities that people do almost excessively online and to the point where it’s detrimental to other parts of their life. For example, kids want to play games. Adults may want to check on their Facebook status more than whatever they are doing at work — but that’s not addiction, that’s just a straight-out choice."Whether that’s online gaming or social networking or browsing certain sites or whatever, it’s actually that activity that they obsess about rather than the internet generally, so that’s why we don’t use the term ‘internet addiction’; but we do understand the concept and the concerns.”
HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?
The World Wide Web offers opportunities for interaction and entertainment that are almost limitless. So much of our lives is now located there — our social lives, commercial activities, hobbies and interests, as well as a myriad of convenient alternatives to ‘real world’ inconveniences — that it’s little wonder it seems to consume more and more of our lives. It’s where we make our friends, keep in contact with our families, play out our fantasies, launch our new ventures and develop different sides of ourselves in a safe environment.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that of course, but just how much is too much?
Dr. Kimberly Young, the above-quoted researcher who now runs the internet addiction website www.netaddiction.com, says that internet addiction shares symptoms with other impulse control disorders, and suggests the following symptoms as indicative of addiction:
- Feelings of preoccupation with the internet
- The feeling of needing to use the internet with increasing amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction
- Repeated unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop internet use
- Feelings of restlessness, moodiness, depression, or irritability when attempting to cut down or stop internet use
- Staying online longer than originally intended
- Jeopardising significant relationships, a job, education or career opportunity because of the internet
- Incidences of lying to family members, therapists, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the internet
- Acknowledgment of using the internet as a way of escaping from problems or feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, depression.
Martin Cocker puts it in simpler terms:
"The key element is that other things that are important to you are suffering. For school kids they will be suffering in their schooling, they might be suffering in their sporting lives because they’re not getting enough sleep, or they are simply not spending enough time on other things that they care about. And as for adults — they might be ignoring their friend networks because of something they do online, or they’re spending time online instead, or they’re struggling to achieve whatever they are supposed to be achieving at work. It’s different for each person. The question is really ‘at what point have they invested so much time in it, that the things that are important to them suffer?’”
WHAT TO DO?
So having identified a problem, what can be done? Perhaps the most effective way of combating excessive internet use is not through traditional ‘rehab’ methods, but via common sense time-management practices.
John Fenaughty, Research Manager at NetSafe, says that can be all that’s required to address issues of excessive internet use.
"You can take programs off the computer if they are being problematic and you can plan ahead for when big tasks are going to require more attention. Around exam time, we know of many students who will take certain programs off the computer so that they can focus on their studies a bit more and not be so distracted. Some people have a ‘no technology evening’ sometimes, or alternatively, impose limits — ‘I’m only going to game from 9 till 10 on weeknights’.
"If that time [online] is going to cause some stress — if they are going to feel guilty about it, annoyed with themselves for wasting time — then they can bank some time in advance and that will remove some of that distress. "But it’s critical to understand how important the internet is in the lives of virtually every single teenager in New Zealand. It’s where they develop emotionally and socially, it’s where they conduct so much social interaction with their friends, it’s where they do their homework; it’s where they find out where the parties are happening this weekend... it’s absolutely unrealistic to think that you can prevent young people from participating in cyberspace if you want them to develop effectively in contemporary society.”
John M. Grohol, Psy.D., a long-time critic of claims of internet addiction, suggested that rather than a full-blown addiction, internet overuse may be part of a step progression, involving the initial enchantment stage (obsession), disillusionment stage (avoidance) and the final stage, where users reach a certain ‘balance’ with their internet use.
"When we get a new thing [such as the internet] we play it a lot or we interact with it a lot, and then eventually that dies down and it starts to fit into a more regular space in our lives,” says Fenaughty.
"There’s a spike of use after initial acquisition and then it becomes integrated into people’s lives.
"For young people for whom it hasn’t become integrated, or where there are problems gaming or communicating or texting, that’s when we need to start thinking about strategies to manage the behaviours, and asking ‘what do you want to spend your time on?’”
The internet has, to some degree or other, replaced those traditional methods of communication that used to occupy our time — books and magazines, sports, movies and TV, telephones and letter writing. These days, life is online.
And while much has been made of the possible parallels between internet use and additive behaviour, a key distinction should also perhaps be made: much internet use encourages social behaviours — emailing, chatting, online gaming, etc — and does not exhibit the isolating and alienating characteristics that other addictions demonstrate.
Nevertheless, if you feel that you or someone you love has a problem, or if issues around internet use are making you or someone you love unhappy, there are places to turn for more information, advice and support. Begin by:
Contacting a medical professional to talk about the issue.