When the general public was introduced to the internet in the ’90s, no one could have imagined the extent of its role in society and daily life. Fast forward to modern day, almost three decades later, and the internet as we know it is a permanent staple of commerce, business, social relationships, and amusement. But has its overwhelming presence in the world developed similarly vast opportunities to grow addicted to it?
As the world continues to use the internet to influence and communicate with others, some question whether the internet itself has grown into a viral monster, ready to suck users into a world of addiction and loss of reality.
Issues with Putting “Internet Addiction” in DSM-V
While it remains a hot debate, internet addiction is being described as an impulse control, behavioral disorder. It was Kimberly Young, Ph.D., a psychologist and lead researcher on internet addiction, who first proposed problematic overuse of the internet as a disorder to be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1996, along with gambling addiction. Yet, gambling disorder was only recently included in the 2013 update of the DSM, 5th edition, almost 20 years later, while internet addiction disorder (IAD) remains in obscurity among psychologists.
The internet plays a huge role in modern day culture, from social media to viral videos to being the latest vehicle for information. Managers send their employees work emails, friends send each other eCards on their birthdays, and people all over the world do their holiday shopping online on Cyber Monday. People use the internet every day, every hour, every minute—so who’s to say when the joke of being glued to your smartphone stops being funny?
This is the problem psychologists face when they try to define what an “internet addiction disorder” is. The internet isn’t what it used to be five years ago—let alone 20 years ago—and with the endless possibilities of what the internet can do popping up every month for businesses, information, and social relationships, psychologists simply can’t keep up. Unlike substance addictions or other defined behavioral disorders, such as addiction to pornography or food, there are no strict symptoms or abuse measures to what constitutes as an IAD. Within each individual’s lifestyle exist a multitude of variables to consider that may cancel certain symptoms out.
Say, for example, a person is a web developer as their profession, working a standard full-time job. That’s easily eight hours of internet use per day, not including personal time on the web after work, and yet you wouldn’t classify them as an internet addict. For many people across the United States and much of the world, sitting in front of a computer for 40 hours a week is standard and using apps to schedule their lives and connect with others is socially acceptable.
Every minute, hundreds of new people gain access to the internet. In 1995, less than 1 percent of the world population used the internet, but from 1999 to 2013, this number would increase tenfold. Internet Live Stats documents the amount of new internet users as they gain access, reporting that more than 46 percent of the world population has access to the World Wide Web. Right now, as this sentence is literally being written, that’s more than three billion people—and by the time you read this, the number will have increased by the thousands.
Internet use is so universally accepted that it begs to question if you could detect an internet “addict” in the first place. Is it the teenage boy who plays World of Warcraft until four in the morning every night, even on a school night? Is it the college girl with a secret webcam show on an adult website? Or is it the middle-aged fellow who throws his money away on online casinos? Some would say that in these scenarios, the internet merely acts as a vehicle for other behavioral addictions—online gaming, sex, and gambling addictions—but isn’t necessarily the root source of the issue.
It all comes down to the addiction mentality. Individual cases for internet use may vary, but the addictive behaviors do not. The American Society of Addiction Medicine recently broke grounds with a new definition of addiction as a chronic brain disorder, officially ruling that addiction is not limited to substance use only and that all addictions share certain characteristics, “including salience, compulsive use (loss of control), mood modification and the alleviation of distress, tolerance and withdrawal, and the continuation despite negative consequences.”
This then allows for symptoms for IAD to be defined as:
“…many hours spent in non-work technology-related computer/internet/video game activities. It is accompanied by changes in mood, preoccupation with the Internet and digital media, the inability to control the amount of time spent interfacing with digital technology, the need for more time or a new game to achieve a desired mood, withdrawal symptoms when not engaged, and a continuation of the behavior despite family conflict, a diminishing social life and adverse work or academic consequences.”
–“Internet Addiction: A Brief Summary of Research and Practice.” Current Psychiatry Reviews.
But for those who truly do have an internet addiction disorder, how are they to survive in the virtual world we live in today?
Managing an IAD Poses Unique Obstacles
So what’s an internet addict supposed to do? Quit and never return to the World Wide Web ever again? Seems unlikely.
As exampled before, the internet manifests its necessity in a variety of ways. An international medium of communication, the Internet is the main method of keeping in touch with others, paying bills, getting education, purchasing goods, making travel plans, meeting new people, applying for jobs, reading and watching the news, streaming television shows and films, reading reviews on businesses and products, sending photos to Grandma—and a plethora of other intimate, intrinsic parts of daily life. The internet is ubiquitous. It legitimately exists everywhere.
It even exists in the palm of your hand.
With the introduction of smartphone technology, obsession with the internet has taken on a new light. No longer confined to a computer, people suffering from an IAD can fuel their addictions through their phones and an unlimited data plan. And none would be the wiser. It’s not uncommon to go to a restaurant and see a handful of folks scrolling through their apps at their tables, nor is it odd to see phones out and about in subways, waiting rooms, or parks. Any downtime warrants a quick check of social media, email, or texts. How do you spot an addict behind the screen glare?
So if it’s impossible to quit the internet, then a person has to learn how to manage it. But if temptation literally exists at the tip of their fingers, then there are no physical barriers that a person can put in place to function in society. Life in the 21st century means living on the grid. There’s no escape from the Matrix these days.
And honestly, if everyone is on the internet because they have to be, then this is simply just the way of life, right? No one seeks treatment for “internet addiction disorder.” Merely an exaggeration worthy of being parodied in a New Yorker cartoon.
Chinese Teenagers’ Internet Addiction Sparks Urgent Research
Internet addiction is no joke in China.
In 2015, a PBS documentary titled Web Junkie revealed the alarming trend of internet abuse among Chinese youth, announcing government estimations of about 1 in 10 children between the ages of 10 and 19 being addicted to the internet.
A panic over internet addiction set off in 2002 from numerous newspaper reports:
“A fire in an unlicensed internet café killed 25 people engaged in all-night gaming sessions; a Chengdu gaming addict died after playing Legend of Mir 2 for 20 straight hours in a Net club; two kids from Chongqing, exhausted after two days of online gaming, passed out on railroad tracks and were killed by a train; a Qingyuan boy butchered his father after a disagreement about his Internet use; a 13-year-old from Tianjin finished a 36-hour session of World of Warcraft and leaped off the roof of his 24-story building, hoping to ‘join the heroes of the game,’as one newspaper summary of his suicide note put it.”
–“Obsessed with the Internet: A Tale From China.” Wired.
Naturally, the government wasn’t going to keep allowing kids to literally die over the internet, so a ban was held on teenagers from participating in any web cafés in the country. Licenses for new internet cafés stopped being issued out—a Prohibition on the internet, if you will. Speakeasy cybercafés rooted themselves underground, which were forced to be shut down if caught—some 16,000 of them in just 2004 alone, in fact.
Still, the onset of internet and online gaming obsession became a firecracker of desperate proportions. Even when software was issued out to safeguard internet use after three hours, people found ways to get around the web blocks. By 2009, internet addiction was formally proposed as a clinical disorder. People weren’t eating; they weren’t sleeping. They were dying.
“They know the internet inside out, but nothing about human beings,” said a therapist in the New York Times’ op-doc video excerpt in Web Junkie, “They play to the point of losing themselves.”
Treatment camps for internet obsession began advertising “cures” for families’ loved ones, only to prey on those suffering from addiction. In 2010, controversy broke out when it was discovered that internet camps—particularly camps that advertised on government sponsored channels—took to abusing their teenage clients until the point of death.
Since 2011, China has established itself as the leading force behind internet addiction research, having understood the severity of their country’s epidemic. While the US still requires further research and debate on whether internet addiction disorder, or IAD, should be included in the DSM-V, China and other Asian nations, like South Korea, can no longer wait and watch the disease affect the brains of their youth.
Internet Addiction Affects Brain and May Lead to Substance Abuse
In June 2011, a China-based study was performed on 18 college-age students who were classified with IADs and 18 healthy controls to observe the effects of prolonged internet use on developing brains. MRI results found that “several small regions in online addicts’ brains shrunk, in some cases as much as 10 to 20 percent,” as stated in an article about the study in Scientific American.
While the significance of brain tissue shrinkage remains “murky” among researchers, authors of the study suggested negative effects were possible, such as “reduced inhibition of inappropriate behavior and diminished goal orientation.”
Other studies linked depression and anxiety with IAD, as is common with most behavioral disorders, based on societal pressures and the obsessive-compulsive need to “escape” via the internet.
One study performed by Greek researchers found teenagers suffering from “pathological” internet obsession were more likely to resort to substance abuse, such as stimulants to prolong their online gaming performance. Because of the nature of the addiction and the endless exposure to problematic influence, young adults suffering from an IAD can easily form gateways to substance abuse and other addictive behaviors.
Yet, despite everything, many researchers wouldn’t advise parents to ban internet use from their children or even imply that too much internet use is a warning flag for addiction. Rather, pay attention to the relationship a loved one has with the internet. If going offline is a matter of life or death, then maybe it’s time to wake them up from their virtual fantasy.
If you or a loved one are battling an internet addiction that may or has led to a substance abuse addiction, then our specialists are available 24-7, ready to guide you toward a treatment center suited for your needs. Call 1-855-619-8070 today and learn how to manage internet use as a positive resource rather than an addictive trap.