When the Media Is the Parent

The media as family member

Is Internet Addiction Disorder a Valid Idea? Part 2

Only is it an Addiction?

Be sure to read Part 1: A Description of the Problem

The question remains: Is this skein of problems an addiction? When parents try, often with my facilitation, to set limits on their kids’ access to the Internet, the children resist, usually mightily, even deviously. Pitched family battles break out, and threats and counter-threats ensue. Children threaten to run away or assault their parents, and parents warn that they will toss game systems into the garbage or sell them on Craig’s List if the child won’t stop. In short, the behaviors look very much like compulsions or addictions, comparable to drug and alcohol addictions. But are we speaking about an addiction in a literal sense? After taking a step back and studying both the many cases I have treated and the existing literature on the subject, I have concluded that my experience with these children and adolescents parallels in many ways the plight of adolescents addicted to cocaine, alcohol, and marijuana. Furthermore, upon consulting the literature, I’ve found how common my experience has become. Two articles, for instance, present clinicians at Imperial College London  (1) and in Holland (2) describing cases of gamers who spend more than fifteen hours per day playing Internet games to the detriment of schoolwork, social life, and family connection. The numbers of cases described are substantial and seem to be growing. Interestingly, the conditions seem to mimic or match many symptoms of classic addictions: compulsive imbibing of drugs, both arguing with oneself and squabbling with family over stopping the addictive behavior, and a kind of withdrawal if one truly tries to stop. The withdrawal symptoms include jitteriness, racing thoughts, sleeplessness, and irritability.

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But is this a true addiction? Behaviorally, one might say yes. On a physiological level, however, what is scientifically known? After all, with any drug addiction, we are speaking of a substance being swallowed, huffed, or inhaled, or entering the blood stream via a needle, and the substance coursing to the central nervous system and bathing some part of that system in a splash of sensation that generates an artificial euphoria. Is there any scholarly literature on Internet “addiction” that finds an equivalent to drug addictions?

So far, we can tentatively answer yes. Since the late 90s, literature (3) has accrued demonstrating that when a person plays video games for fifty minutes or more, the brain responds by releasing large quantities of a naturally occurring neurotransmitter called dopamine. This transmitter then binds in a part of the brain called the striatum, a primitive portion of the brain implicated in the experience of pleasure. The pleasure reaction is similar physiologically to an intravenous inject of amphetamine or methylphenidate into the body. Though a deeper understanding of how these games focus a person’s attention and induce pleasure is still being investigated, scientific progress is clearly underway, and further breakthroughs in our understanding lie ahead.

But where does this leave the child, the parents, and the clinicians in these complex cases in the here and now? Put simply, clinicians need to emphasize limit setting to diminish the impact of the troubled behavior, comparable to the idea of going clean and sober. Meanwhile, the child or adolescent needs to strive to develop other areas of interest, and concurrently to identify and work on underlying problems, be they emotional, social, or family based. Not surprisingly, such a multipronged approach parallels techniques now being utilized in the treatment of drug and alcohol addictions.

Dr. George Drinka is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and the author ofThe Birth of Neurosis: Myth, Malady and the Victorians (Simon & Schuster). His new book, When the Media Is the Parent, is a culmination of his work with children, his scholarly study of works on the media and American cultural history, and his dedication to writing stories that reveal the humanity in us all.

George Drinka, M.D. is on the clinical faculty of the Oregon Health Sciences University.

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