Internet addiction, Fact of Fad?

This article about Internet addiction is the first of a series dedicated to the various forms of non-substance related addictions, including technology addiction

In recent years, the media regularly report on a question which seems to be a major concern for parents of teenagers overly prone to spend many hours in front of their computer screen: is there such a thing as Internet Addiction?

To try and answer this question with a minimum of honesty, we’d better go back to basics: what is addiction?

A French physician, Pierre Fouquet, gave an especially relevant definition of the alcoholic individual, “One who has lost the freedom to abstain from drinking.” Cutting off the end of the phrase results in a near-perfect definition of any addiction: one is addicted when one has lost the freedom to abstain. When one feel trapped by a substance or a behavior which generally entails negative consequences in areas that matter most, as our relationships with our loved ones, our job or our bank account.

“Yes Internet addiction does exist”

Returning to the specifics of Internet Addiction, it seems that certain practices resemble more a pathological use than a  normal one, if we are to believe a number of researchers and addiction specialists. The problem, or disorder, is sometimes called Internet addiction disorder, or, more commonly, problematic Internet Use (PIU) or compulsive Internet use.

PIU is not necessarily related to the amount of time spent on the Web. The amount of time we spend online may depend of  several elements: our culture, our job, our studies, etc.

Nor is it related to what we do online: World of Warcraft enthusiasts can attest to that, once you’ve got caught up in the game an hour seems like a minute, without there being any question of addiction per se.

In fact, even though many young people describe themselves as “hooked” (to WoW, the social networks, online poker, etc. – it should be pointed out that young people are often inclined to define themselves as  “hooked ” to something), only a few of them have a real problem. In fact, for the practice of the Internet to be considered as a genuine addiction, it is not the amount of time spent online which matters, but the impact of our practices.

According to experts, PIU can lead to physical symptoms such as dry eyes, headaches or backaches, insomnia or poor personal hygiene – and various psychological or social symptoms, including the inability to refrain from going on the Internet, the need to increase the amount of time online (until you’ve got to wake up in dead of the night just to access the Internet), neglecting important things in your life, lying about the time you spend on the Web, or showing signs of depression or irritability when you are deprived of your favorite activity.

Internet addiction tests

A number of tests have been developed by scientists in order to determine whether the behavior of an individual falls under the criteria of Internet addiction. However,  the results of these tests  should be taken with precaution given the recent nature of the problem or disorder,  and due to a difficulty to establish generalities because of the many specific online issues overlapping (addiction to video games, pathological gambling, addiction to virtual realities, online pornography, etc.)

As an example, we should mention the first of its kink, the Internet Addiction Test (IAT) developed by Dr. Kimberly Young. Initial studies have found that the IAT was a reliable instrument which covers the key characteristics of a pathological online use. Depending on the responses, , the test classifies the addictive behavior in terms of mild, moderate and severe impairment.

“No, Internet addiction is only a symptom of other disorders”

It should be emphasized that the reality of Internet Addiction is still debated among experts. Internet addiction is not mentioned in the ICD 10, nor is it in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the well-known DSM-5, “bible” of psychiatry).

LThe thing is that many researchers are still questioning the issue. For the latter, the Internet addiction disorder is not a true addiction and may in fact be no more than a symptom of other, existing disorders. Most, if not all “Internet addicts” would therefore have a prior pathological condition, such as depression, anxiety disorders, or even eating disorders. In addition, a number of researchers question the criteria and recruitment methods used in Internet addiction studies.

Internet Addiction Disorder, a misnomer

It seems more accurate to say that the addictive process is established via the Internet, but that it does not concern the Internet itself, which only plays the role of an instrument.

Individuals who engage in Internet misuse do do so for reasons as diverse as shopping, gambling, human relationships, pornography or video games. All these acts are performed online, but they have no other common denominator. For these reasons, Internet addiction is something of a misnomer since it covers many distinct phenomena.

Are there solutions?

The debate about the existence of a specific Internet disorder is irrelevant who those who are facing real problems with the Internet instrument: loss of interest at school, growing isolation, irritability, etc.

People facing this problem feel the same as any other addicted individual, a loss of freedom and inability to reduce or cease their habit despite the negative consequences of that behavior in their daily lives.

Internet Addiction most often concerns three categories, those who engage in video games and more particularly in massively multiplayer online role play games (MMORPG), those addicted to gambling online, and finally those affected by sexual cyberaddiction, that is to say, experiencing an irresistible urge to visit pornographic sites.

There are relatively few centers specifically dedicated to the addiction via Internet (a term which would probably be more appropriate); the most serious ones utilize models based on cognitive behavioral therapies. The latter are based on a set of validated practices in addiction treatment, such as the motivational approach and relapse prevention techniques. These practices aim to identify the factors that trigger the addictive behaviors and to act on these factors through capacity building and the empowerment of individuals. These therapies require heavy investment from patients and therapists , but they have proven effective.

Other methods include corrective strategies through content-control software, which however address primarily children and adolescents. In any event, professionals generally agree on the objective of limiting Internet usage rather than on total abstinence.

In conclusion

The Internet has changed the course of our lives and revolutionized human life; not only is it here to stay, but it can boast of an extraordinarily positive impact in terms of human development and empowerment. Internet has become an integral part of the lives of the younger generation, because it is simply the ideal tool to carry out what is their very first area of ??interest, their top priority: forging a sense of belonging , creating links, communicating  (and as a result, building one’s identity)! This is a positive and natural process, as old as humanity. Only the tools have changed. 

So, admittedly, Internet use may sometimes be problematic. However, for now no one has been able to determine whether internet addiction is a specific addiction disorder or a mere notion which only serves to point the finger and designate a culprit, while one can avoid poring over the real causes of the addicts’ suffering and anguish – lack of communication, stress, loneliness, etc.

Scientific evidence is too scarce to  give a definitive response, and it will take many researches and long-term studies for them to be answered candidly.