Stuart Fischoff Ph.D.

The Media Zone

Internet Addiction: Real or Really Techno-Hysteria - Part 1

The Internet is today as the Gods were yesterday

Posted Jun 28, 2008

Let's see, how much time per day do I daily spend on the Internet (as distinct from straight computer time)?... There's reading email and scourging spam. Then there's reading the NYT, unless I'm in a position to buy it, which I will because I prefer hands-on NYT to laptop NYT. I like to hold and turn pages, be surprised by what's on the next page, toss the sections when finished, carry it with me to... well, wherever I choose to be when I'm roaming my house for a change of reading venue...

Where was I? Oh, yeah, time online. Well, there's time spent reading other blogs and interesting items sent to me by too many "alternative" progressive news sites (and two conservative sites, just to know what the opposition is up to), some YouTube and other-site video viewing, information surfing, following hyperlinks, monitoring my other email addresses... There's other Internet stuff I do but, all told, I probably spend maybe two-three hours a day as a cyber-jockey. When I'm in a hot debate on some psychology or politics forum, it sometimes goes up by a couple of hours, but 2-3 hours a day is about right.

Now, does that make me a big Internet user, or an Internet addict, or maybe just an Internet abuser? Or am I simply a garden variety user? The mind boggles with nomenclatural possibilities.

According to some recent literature on the subject, explored in excellent depth and breadth in a recent publication, The Oxford Handbook of Internet Psychology (Oxford University Press, 2007), there are a variety of ways in which the use of the Internet to the point of excess can be described: Internet addiction, Internet dependency, compulsive Internet use, pathological Internet use, problematic Internet use, and Internet Abuse (IA). I will use IA as a generic term for all these behavioral variants.

Implicit in these designations is the assumption that these are synonyms of a specific disorder or disease, i.e., excessive IA has been ‘medicalized'; it's an extreme pattern of behavior on a continuum from normal to pathological. Many have looked at the phenomenon of IA as an addiction similar to drug, or so-called sex, or gambling addictions. In doing so, they draw from DSM IV behavior markers of more generally accepted and classified addicted behaviors related to drugs, sex, and gambling. This permits them to make the case for a disease entity and go beyond simple similarities to or metaphors for real addictions. These addiction markers include:

Preoccupation with the Internet use
Symptoms of tolerance and withdrawal,
Unsuccessful attempts to cut back on use
Using the Internet to alter mood
Use causes disruption of productive life patterns

Sensational and extreme examples of behavior while using the Internet, in this instance Internet games, are murders, suicides, and deaths connected to non-stop, 50-hour game marathons, mostly with young men in Asian cultures, suggesting, perhaps, cultural markers for abuse of cyber-technology.

On the opposing side, others feel that to call internet abuse an addiction runs into the same problems as calling any behavior done to excess or which ends up taking time away from other, perhaps more accepted and traditional activities, like church attendance, sports, even work. Television watching is a good example of such a pastime that has evoked the wrath of societal gate keepers of acceptability because of the medium's capacity for displacing so many "better" or more social activities and, apparently killing brain cells. Books like Mary Winn's 1985 anti-TV screed, The Plug-In Drug: and Tannis MacBeth Williams research volume The Impact of Television (Academic Press, 1986) are cases in point.

But Americans, and, alas, many psychologists, often confuse excessive fascination with a novel device or activity, a novelty whose complexity determines the length of time it takes to see the activity as a part of one's daily life, with some genuine, psycho-biologically based addiction to something ingested, like a drug, or neurohormonal, like endorphins (runner’s high). For instance, it takes over 60 hours to complete or work through the complexities and levels of Grand Theft Auto - IV. Playing a few of those can kill an awful lot of time, especially if you're a teenager who doesn't have to work.  Is that addiction or fascination?

A related argument is that addictifying excessive Internet use trivializes the concept of substance-related or more common compulsive behaviors like sex and gambling. Further, pathologizing or medicalizing or addictifying every new excessive behavior that comes down the behavioral highway takes individual responsibility away from the individual (internalization) and places it onto the "disease" (externalization), something they are helpless now to do anything about.

In the realm of psychology, truth be told, this is almost never true. There is always something one can do to reduce if not eliminate unwanted behavior. Always.

I think the most compelling argument against labeling excessive use of the Internet as "abusive" or "addictive" is, quite simply, that the problem is really not Internet use per se but the specific activities that people pursue online, activities which are often carryovers from offline obsessive behaviors, such as

Compulsive chatting online
Compulsive downloading of porno 
Compulsive game playing
Compulsive stock trading
Compulsive surfing to kill time

Look at it another way: if people read erotic or pornographic magazines in voluminous amounts, excessive amounts, obscene amounts, we don't say they're addicted to magazines. We're far more likely to say they're addiction is to pornography --the magazine is merely the delivery system! Similarly, heroin addicts aren't addicted to syringes; they're addicted to the drug itself.

At worst, maybe the Internet is only an enabling medium. And if people want to run from life and go online, perhaps that's because they have always run (to drugs, sex, rock n' role, the movies, or food), or wanted to run but knew not where; then along came the Internet, "a streetcar named desire," and gave them the gateway to the fix they had been searching for lo these many years. (Come to think of it, DSL probably enabled IA a lot more than dial-up. Waiting for something to download on dial-up could take the passion out of any escapist tendencies)

If some significant percentage of the population is addicted to the Internet (some estimates are up to 15% in certain demographic groups, like Taiwanese college students) the real question might be: Why aren't more people addicted to or abusive of the Internet? After all, in cyberspace there is a carnival, a veritable cornucopia of sights, sites, games, chat rooms, forums, pornography magnets, news sources constantly updated or delivering one's favorite newspaper, blogs, TV series and original programming and, of course, email, e-trading, portfolio management, surfing for cool pictures, self-advertisements (MySpace), friendship monitoring (MyFace), e-dating, e-Bay, shop ‘til you drop sites offering to sell or auction just about everything, Amazon surfing, movie reviews and ratings. The list is literally endless.

TV was once described as the 800 lb gorilla because it was in the room and drew our attention for most entertainment and informational needs. But the breadth and scope of the Internet is beginning to make TV look like a need-service piker.

If the Internet is grabbing time and devotion away from television and from newspapers, are there groups which perhaps look like abusers or seem mono-media-dependent? Are there groups that have been designated as prone to IA, but may, in fact, be people colonizing the Internet because the world online is simply preferable to the world offline and, before there was an Internet, there was a world that just didn't work for them and, for many, never would?

In other words, are there some groups for which the Internet is not a world to escape to, to become addicted to, but one to embrace in order to live life more fully?

Are you one of them?

The next blog will look at these folks. It will look at whether or not social group pressures and contagion and imitative tendencies, interacting with fragile self-concepts can lead to cultural phenomena like so-called Internet abuse and even eating disorders like anorexia.

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