Can we really be addicted to the Internet?

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To view the original article published online in the Telegraph please click here.

The news that China’s parents are resorting to electro-shock therapy in an attempt to ‘cure’ their children of internet addiction is nothing short of terrifying. According to The Sunday Times: “Chinese teenagers hooked on the internet are being subjected to electro-shock therapy at a clinic that claims they will be “reborn” free of the obsession.”

What strikes me most about this report is not the draconian treatment of these teenagers (which is frightening to say the least) but that: “An official study two years ago claimed that almost 10% of the nation’s young people were “addicted to the web”. Whilst I’m willing to accept that “the country has more than 300m internet users”, I find it hard to believe that such a high proportion of Chinese youngsters are genuinely addicted to the internet.

Historically, there has been little consensus over what constitutes internet addiction. Although there is a healthy body of academic research which sets out to understand it, differences in criteria have made it difficult to present a definitive picture.

For me the idea of being addicted to the internet is conceptually flawed. The internet is not a homogenous ‘place’; computers and the internet facilitate a multitude of activities and behaviours. If an individual is addicted to anything, it’s these activities and not the act of being online. People are addicted to gambling with or without the internet. It makes gambling easier but take the computer away and they’ll be back to the bookies. The same stands for addiction to pornography and gaming. In this sense, the term ‘internet addiction’ is almost too generic to be meaningful.

In the book, Psychology and the Internet: Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, and Transpersonal Implications, Professor Mark Griffiths, a specialist in gambling and technological addictions, and Laura Widyanto from Nottingham Trent University assert that: “if internet addiction does indeed exist, it affects only a relatively small percentage of the online population.”

So assuming that it is possible to be addicted to ‘being online’ how then is internet addiction identified?

Contrary to popular opinion, the amount of time someone spends online is not an indicator of internet addiction. According to Griffiths, for someone to be considered an internet addict they must show evidence of all seven components of what is known as a “technological addiction”.

Technological addictions in turn feature the core components of chemical addictions (drugs, alcohol etc). These components include: salience (the internet becomes the most important thing in someone’s life); mood modification (using the internet literally makes someone high); withdrawal (when people stop they experience shakes, moodiness or irritability); conflict (with friends, family etc); tolerance (the need to use the internet more and more to achieve former mood modifying effects) and relapse (repeat reversions to earlier patterns of use).

Although it’s possible that individuals who use the internet may experience one or another of these components, only evidence of all seven constitutes an addiction and this, at present, is incredibly rare.

There is also a very clear distinction between healthy but excessive use of the internet and actual internet addiction. For most of us high levels of computer and internet usage now constitute a normal part of life. Indeed, the recent rise in internet enabled mobile devices means that we no longer have to ‘go online’ for long periods of time any more. The internet is not something other or separate; it is embedded in our everyday lives.

As the division between our lives on and offline continues to blur, how much longer can the notion of internet addiction endure? For the sake of China’s youth, let’s hope the answer is not long.

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On 12th June 2009
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