Internet Addiction: Symptom or Cause?

Internet Addiction Disorder (I.A.D.), if it does exist, is a greatly disputed ‘addiction’ characterized by the compulsive use of the Internet. Usage must interfere with work, sleep and personal relationships to be considered problematic. In the past decade, I.A.D. has become more generally accepted; however, the American Medical Association and the American Physiological Association still fail to recognize it as an addiction. Individuals become addicted to the Internet when dealing with depression, loneliness, anxiety and many other mental health problems. Given the correlation between these symptoms and I.A.D., is Internet addiction merely a symptom of these other mental health problems?

Dr Jerald Block, a psychiatrist at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland says “about 86 percent of Internet addicts have some other form of mental illness, but that unless a therapist is looking for it, Internet addiction is likely to be missed”

Addiction and mental health specialists agree that five specific areas of the Internet can become problematic. There is little agreement if any of these troublesome behaviors should be considered addictions.

1. Cybersex and Pornography

1 in 5 ‘Internet addicts’ engage in online sexual behavior.  Those who engage in cybersex are likely to have an outside sex addiction, low self-esteem and depression. ‘Addicts’ enjoy the anonymity of the Internet, according to Dr. Young of the Center for Internet Addiction.

2. Online Affairs

Affairs occurring on the Web are the most frequently treated type of online compulsive behavior. At the Center of Internet Addiction, 60% of cases that are brought forward for treatment are online affairs.

3. Online Gaming

Video games and role-playing games are a growing problem among today’s youth.

“In a volunteer sample, 41% of online gamers acknowledged that they use gaming as an escape. In the same sample, 7% were viewed as dependent. These gamers possessed several behavioral attributes that are related to more well established forms of addiction (e.g., mood modification, tolerance, & relapse).”-International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction

4Online Gambling

Gambling online is an impulse control disorder that mostly affects those with gambling problems outside of the Web. There should not be a distinction between gambling online or in person. Gambling addicts require treatment for their underlying condition, not for their Web usage.

5. Information Overload

Also known as search engine addiction, information overload is characterized by compulsive surfing of the Web and using online databases.

The Addiction Intervention Center defines addiction as “the compulsive need for and use of something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological and physical symptoms upon withdrawal”.   This definition is intended to apply to drug, alcohol and computer related destructive behaviors. Can Internet users experience physical withdrawal symptoms in the same way that drug and alcohol abusers do? In my opinion, as well as the American Medical Association’s, it is not possible. Users may experience mental and emotional withdrawal symptoms but simply cannot experience physical withdrawal. Any symptoms that users may experience are a result of their underlying health conditions.

The Center for Internet Addiction, HelpGuide.org, Psych Central and many other similar cites have lists of symptoms and tests to diagnosis users. Below is a compiled list taken from these sites1.

  • Failed attempts to control behavior
  • Heightened sense of euphoria while involved in computer and Internet activities
  • Neglecting friends and family
  • Neglecting sleep to stay online
  • Being dishonest with others
  • Feeling guilty, ashamed, anxious, or depressed as a result of online behavior
  • Physical changes such as weight gain or loss, backaches, headaches, carpal tunnel syndrome 
  • Withdrawing from other pleasurable activities
  • Social isolation
  • Difficulty concentrating

Now, let’s compare these symptoms to the symptoms of depression listed on the Institute for Mental Health website2.

  • Physical changes: fatigue and decreased energy; persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment; weight gain or loss
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and/or helplessness
  • Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
  • Irritability, restlessness
  • Social isolation
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex

Notice any similarities? Perhaps these overlaps are because Internet addiction is a symptom of preexisting mental health conditions, not a problem in itself.

So, what is the difference between checking email multiple times a day, surfing daily and watching shows online, as I, and many of you do, and full-blown addiction? This is the question that triggered me to write this blog. When does the switch from typical user to ‘addict’ occur?

To answer this question I took the questionnaire on the Center for Internet addiction website. When completing the questionnaire I over-exaggerated my responses and still scored in the normal category. According to the site, “You are an average on-line user. You may surf the Web a bit too long at times, but you have control over your usage.”

Some of the questions really did not seem to be indicative of an addiction. What’s more, it seems that these questions can be applied to a whole list of activities including reading, listening to music, watching TV and even socializing. The questions that seemed too general are listed below.

How often do you find that you stay on-line for longer than intended?

How often do you neglect household chores to spend more time on-line?

How often do your grades or schoolwork suffer because of the amount of time you spend on-line?

How often do you check your e-mail before something else that you need to do?

How often do you lose sleep due to late-night log-ins?

How often do you try to cut down the amount of time you spend on-line and fail?

What makes the Internet addictive but watching television and reading not? If symptoms of addiction are simply excessive time spent doing an activity while other parts of your life suffer, couldn’t any behavior be considered an addiction? A study done by Stanford University, asked this very question with respect to television. The results showed that there is nothing special about the Internet that creates addiction, when compared to similar behaviours.

The Economist quotes Joseph Walther, a communications professor at Michigan State University, who completed a similar study, saying, “No scientific evidence has emerged to suggest that Internet use is a cause rather than a consequence of some other sort of issue. Focusing on and treating people for internet addiction, rather than looking for underlying clinical issues, is unwise”. He argues that the criteria developed for Internet addiction can be applied to anything. For example, professors can be addicted to academia.  Below are a few of the questions from the Internet addiction quiz applied to academia. As you can see, it could easily be argued using this criteria that anything can be additive.

How often do you find that you reading and researching for longer than intended?

How often do you neglect household chores to spend more time reading and researching?

How often do you lose sleep due to late-night reading and research?

In my opinion, defining Internet usage an addiction diminishes the severity of true addictions. Compulsive Internet use that has severe social consequences on the user is a symptom of other underlying metal health conditions.

In 2010, the center for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders decided that Internet use cannot be an addiction. Let’s listen to the professionals and help so-called Internet addicts address their true problems.

Notes:

1Symptoms for Internet addiction come from The Center for Internet Addiction, Dr. Young, 1995, http://www.netaddiction.com/ and Help Guide Dr. Segal, 2012, http://www.helpguide.org/

2Symptoms for Depression come from the National Institute for Mental Health, 2012, http://www.nimh.nih.gov/index.shtml

3All survey questions come from The Center for Internet Addiction, Dr. Young, 1995, http://www.netaddiction.com/

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