The American Psychiatric Association has decided not to include Internet Addiction in its new manual of psychiatric disorders, the DSM-V (1). It will instead include “Internet Use Disorder” in the Appendix as a syndrome that deserves additional study. Be this as it may, a recent search of the PsycInfo database brought up 274 academic studies with the term “Internet Addiction” in the title.
Addiction vs. Bad Habit
When should we call something an addiction, and when is overuse simply a bad habit – and does it matter?
One characteristic of an addiction is not only that the behavior interferes with important aspects of a person’s life, but that he feels helpless in controlling it. Some people object to calling something like Internet use an addiction because it implies the person is powerless to change on his own.
Other opponents argue that we shouldn’t focus on the Internet as the culprit, but rather we should consider it a vehicle that serves other addictions or exacerbates pre-existing psychiatric problems. They argue that someone who can’t stop watching Internet porn is no more an Internet addict than a person who can’t give up sex videos is a video addict.
It’s clear that many behavioral addictions are made much more convenient by the Internet. An out-of-control gambler has a much harder time controlling his urges if he has online access virtually all the time than if he has to go to a casino to gamble. A shopaholic without Internet access can shop only when the stores are open. And so on. So whether or not we want to consider the Internet as a separate addiction, it’s clear that the Internet enables potentially problematic behaviors to flourish because most people have virtually 24/7 access to one form of computer or another.
The Internet as Attractive Time-Waster
But the Internet doesn’t just enable problematic behaviors—it allows us to keep up with world events, do research, communicate with friends and colleagues, donate to worthy causes, entertain ourselves and do thousands of other things. Whether or not people are “addicted” and whether or not what they do is harmful, many people find themselves spending increasing amounts of time online, often at the expense of other activities, like getting things done at work, or sleeping, or having face-to-face interactions with the people they love.
So whether or not the Internet augments psychiatric disorders, our constant connection to the Internet can create challenges for everyone, even those without psychiatric issues.
Impact on Business Productivity
And it’s no wonder that many businesses are concerned with the problematic Internet use of their employees. When you’re trying to get work done on your computer, there’s always something attractive or fun or interesting available at the touch of a button. You may have good intentions, but the minute you reach a frustrating point in your problem-solving, it’s so tempting to check email, or news sites or sports scores or Facebook and on and on and on. This leads to enormous amounts of productivity loss in organizations and businesses due directly to time wasted and to the additional time-loss caused by task-switching. (2)
Trying to work at a typical computer is like being back in college, studying for exams, and your roommate, who’s on his way to flunking out anyway, keeps interrupting you with jokes, or ideas, or fun places he wants to take you. And he won’t shut up! Your only solution then was to go to the library and hide where he couldn’t find you.
How Businesses Cope with the Problem
Griffiths (3) reports survey data suggesting that up to 40% of Internet surfing in the workplace is unrelated to work and that 41% of respondents say they spend more than three hours a week on personal web-surfing. Many companies grapple with the right policy for the personal use of the web on company time. These range from banning personal web use altogether to a laissez-faire policy as long as people get their work done on time.
A few years back some businesses tried to block access to certain sites, but that didn’t work and created resentment. That solution seems impossible now, anyway, since almost everyone carries a smart phone and can surf to his heart’s content on his own device.
Creating and publicizing policies for personal Internet use might help somewhat, but professionals and knowledge workers might balk at being told what to do.
Perhaps a better approach is to educate workers about how detrimental multitasking, repeated interruptions, and information overload are for the efficiency, quality, and creativity of their work (4) – and help them create a culture that values focus and concentration for at least part of the day; and taking breaks from that focus that might include physical exercise, fresh air, and yes, even some recreational web-surfing.
(1) Pawlikowski, M., Altstötter-Gleich, C., & Brand, M. (in press). Validation and psychometric properties of a short version of Young’s Internet Addiction Test. Computers in Human Behavior. Available at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563212002828
(2)  Gloria Mark, in Pattison, K. (2008). Worker, interrupted: The cost of task-switching. http://www.fastcompany.com/articles/2008/07/interview-gloria-mark...
(3) Griffiths, M. (2010). Internet abuse and internet addiction in the workplace. Journal of Workplace Learning, 22 (7), 463-472.
(4 ) See my previous blogs: Mining Your Inner Moron: Why Multitasking is Such a Waste; Five Reasons We Multitask Anyway; Flooding Your Brain’s Engine: How You Can Have Too Much of a Good Thing; Mindus Interruptus: Distractions are Costlier Than You Think.