Experts Admitting Internet Addiction Really Does Exist (It’s About Time!)

A thirteen year old boy, punching holes in the wall, throwing things angrily,  going to school only intermittently, refusing to do anything that will take him away from his obsession. Is this the plot of a new reality TV show? No. Actually it’s a real boy from Sydney, Australia. His mother is beside herself and desperate for help. She’s gone to specialists. She’s talked to a psychiatrist. What could possibly have such a hold on him? His mother said,

He won’t go to school. He missed most of this year and most of last year.

I can’t get him out the door. I am a petite person, just 44kg, and he is quite tall for his age so I can’t pick him up and put him in the car when he refuses.

We have spoken to the school and they have spoken to him but he is not worried about it at all. We have called the police because he gets aggressive when you take the computer away.

He starts punching holes through the walls, throwing things around and threatening you. And this all has to do with World Of Warcraft, the most addictive game.

I wish I had never bought it.

The Reality of Internet Addiction

A recent article, “Distressed Families Flood Psychiatrists over Children Dangerously Addicted to Computer Games and the Internet,” piqued my curiosity. As a licensed counselor specializing in Internet addiction, I was gratified that some experts are finally opening their eyes. Some of us have known this for years. Finally many of my colleagues are admitting that people can become addicted to Internet activities like gaming, pornography and even texting.

The article tells the story of another Australian boy who has been admitted to a hospital study attempting to control destructive Internet usage:

The first teenager admitted to hospital partly due to computer addiction volunteered to spend a number of weeks at the Rivendell Adolescent Unit at Concord, receiving therapy and doing schoolwork.

The teen, who accepted he needed to be separated from his computer if the treatment was to succeed, said he was now gaming two or three hours a day instead of six hours.

“I am still playing but I am controlling it a bit better and I’m not doing it through the night,” he said.

“The treatment was to find a useful substitute to gaming as the best way to manage it. I am now playing sports–basketball, tennis, swimming–and hope to study business at university.”

I hope you’re not laughing at these poor kids. It is hard for those who haven’t been touched by the reality of Internet addiction to really believe it. How could a kid spend six hours a day playing computer games? What parent would really have to call the police to intervene between a child and his computer?

The Skeptics

But there are many who do laugh in skeptical unbelief. Even “experts” have concluded that Internet usage is really not that big a problem. Typical of the skeptics is John M. Grohol, a mental health professional and editor of the Psychcentral website.

He wrote an article titled, “Why Internet Addiction Still Doesn’t Exist.” After an analysis of ten years of scientific research on “Internet addiction” Grohol concluded:

What’s happening today and some people’s reaction to the Internet is neither new nor unique—it’s as old as technology itself (starting with the printing press). It’s an overreaction to suggest that the Internet is somehow different than what’s come before, as history tells us otherwise. Every new technology unleashed on society from the 1800s on was thought to be the end of civilized society—the paperback book, the telephone, the automobile, the motion picture, television, and finally video games. And now, the Internet is the latest in a long line of demons society would like to blame for some of its problems.

I don’t deny that some small subset of people have behavioral problems with learning how to integrate using parts of the Internet into their everyday lives. But people have similar problems with work, the television, and many other things in life, and we can still treat them without demonizing (and labeling) the conduit that brings a person new entertainment, information, or enjoyment.

Now isn’t this an interesting use of logic? Dr. Grohol said that Internet addiction can’t possibly be real because the Internet is simply a technology and people have been demonizing harmless technologies for generations. Notice that last phrase: the Internet is the latest in a long line of demons society would like to blame for some of its problems. Is this really what the proponents of Internet addiction believe? That the Internet is demonic and evil? I suppose there are some “Luddites” out there who would try to make this point, but that’s not where the debate rages. The very concept of an addiction suggests neurological, behavioral and chemical changes in the addict. It’s not about the substance as much as changes in the person making it increasingly difficult for self-control. That certainly seems to be what happened to the boys in Australia. But it isn’t just out of touch Luddites who are recognizing it.

A Diagnosable Condition

For example, there is cutting edge research on Internet abuse by scientist William Struthers. If you haven’t seen his scholarly yet accessible work, Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brainyou really should. While Struthers and others like him are careful not to get caught up in the “addiction” or “non-addiction” debate, I believe his research lays the foundation for understanding the addictive potential of this kind of behavior.

I’m hopeful that the voices of skeptics like Grohol will become less influential as more and more experts see the light. A huge step forward would be if Internet addiction is included in the upcoming fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The DSM is the recognized authority on mental health diagnoses, used by professionals everywhere. If it is included it will go a long way toward elevating the risks of uncontrolled Internet activity. Jerald Block, wrote about this in the American Journal of Psychiatry:

Internet addiction appears to be a common disorder that merits inclusion in DSM-V. Conceptually, the diagnosis is a compulsive-impulsive spectrum disorder that involves online and/or offline computer usage…and consists of at least three subtypes: excessive gaming, sexual preoccupations, and e-mail/text messaging… All of the variants share the following four components: 1) excessive use, often associated with a loss of sense of time or a neglect of basic drives, 2) withdrawal, including feelings of anger, tension, and/or depression when the computer is inaccessible, 3) tolerance, including the need for better computer equipment, more software, or more hours of use, and 4) negative repercussions, including arguments, lying, poor achievement, social isolation, and fatigue.

While this debate over whether Internet abuse is or is not an addiction may seem irrelevant to most of us—especially the parents of teens like I mentioned above—I beg to differ. The terminology signals a cultural and professional mindset with significant implications. The more we minimize or marginalize a problem the longer it will spiral out of control. Those “gatekeeprs” of society—parents, teachers, medical and mental health professionals—need assistance in recognizing and dealing with social problems. They need heightened awareness. They need to heed the early warning signs so they can push the alarm buttons when problems are presented. Admitting that some Internet abuse is an addiction might have that benefit.

There’s one other thing. It reminds us how destructive and deadly this abuse can be. Very few people need help understanding how harmful alcohol or drug addiction is. We’ve been trained to cry for help and insist on intervention in these situations. Perhaps the growing willingness on the part of the mental health community to treat Internet gaming, pornography and texting as potentially addictive will have the positive effect of expanding research and treatment plans even more in the days to come.