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Pathological Internet Use - Some Examples

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Updated November 21, 2003

Researchers studying Online behavior have different opinions about the existence of "Internet addiction." In another article I expressed some skepticism regarding this "diagnosis."  I doubt that it deserves to be elevated to the status of an official diagnosis. It is undoubtedly true that some people develop severe problems with their Internet use, however.

The DSM-IV and the ICD-9 (the diagnostic manuals used to diagnose mental and substance abuse disorders) may contribute to the problem. They diagnose substance abuse and dependence based on the chemical family that one is addicted to. They do not consider non-chemical disorders to be addictions. The term "pathological gambling" is used rather than "gambling addiction", for example.

People develop problems with certain activities which they do online. There are people who compulsively chat online, people who compulsively download pornography, and people who compulsively play games. If the word "addiction" is even appropriate, I'd like to suggest that people become "addicted" to these activities and not to the Internet itself. The term "sex addict" is not an official diagnostic term, but it is sometimes used to describe someone someone who is compulsively sexual and seems to be addicted to sex. Many of these people buy hundreds of pornographic magazines and videos. We don't consider them to be addicted to "magazines and videos", but to sex - the content of the magazines and videos.

A British psychologist, Mark Griffiths is studying "Internet addiction" by comparing clinical examples with established definitions of addiction. He defines "technological addictions" as "non-chemical (behavioural) addictions which involve human-machine interactions" (Griffiths, 1997). His presentation at APA was impressive, but I was bothered by the fact that he compared Internet addiction with "Star Trek" addiction. Evidently some mental health professionals in Great Britain are studying "Star Trek addicts" and consider them to be suffering from a legitimate disorder. Griffiths would consider "Star Trek addiction" and "Internet addiction" to be examples of technological addictions.

Griffiths uses a fairly traditional definition of addiction which involves the following features:

  • Salience: the activity or drug becomes the most important activity in a person's life
  • Mood modification: feeling a buzz or high, or feeling numb or tranquil.
  • Tolerance: Increasing amounts of the substance or activity are needed over time to produce the same euphoric effect.
  • Withdrawal symptoms: unpleasant feeling states which occur when the substance or activity is removed.
  • Conflict: Interpersonal conflict because of the substance or activity, and intrapersonal conflict within the individual.
  • Relapse: the tendency to repeatedly revert to earlier pathological patterns of use, and for the most extreme patterns of use to be quickly restored after many years of control or abstinence. (summarized from Griffiths, 1997)

Griffiths then presents some case studies and evaluates them on these dimensions. One example is that of a 15 year old male with a physical handicap who spends time with his computer to the exclusion of family and friends. The example does not mention whether the teenager has access to the Internet. Another example is a 16 year old college student who spends 40 hours per week on the net chatting about Star Trek with other Trekkies. A third example is a 20 year old Greek college student who describes himself as having been addicted to computer games at a younger age. The last two examples are older. A 35 year old unemployed Canadian female spends 40 hours per week exclusively in IRC (Internet Relay Chat) chat rooms. She has made friends online and later met them in real life. She even married one of them. The last example is a 32 year old employed British male who turned to IRC chats after a job change which resulted in him spending more time at home alone. He left his marriage and moved to the United States to be with the online friends that he had made.

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