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The rise and popularity of the Internet as a communication medium has become an ever-increasing part of many people's day-to-day lives. Coupled with the rise in popularity and usage, there have been a growing number of reports in the popular press about excessive use of the internet under the guise of "Internet addiction", "Internet Addiction Disorder" (IAD) and "Internet Addiction Syndrome" (IAS). For instance, in as early as 1995, Newsweek reported that 2% to 3% of the online community have serious "Internet addictions" and spend most of their waking time surfing and chatting in this medium (Hamilton and Kalb, 1995). Although the concept of "Internet addictions" and its derivatives appear to have its supporters in the popular press, there is a form of "knee-jerk skepticism" amongst the academic community -- not least among those working in the field of addiction research.
It is not hard to understand the skepticism shown. For many people, the concept of Internet addiction seems far-fetched particularly if their concepts and definitions of addiction involve the taking of drugs. Despite the predominance of drug-based definitions of addiction, there is now a growing movement which views a number of behaviors as potentially addictive including many behaviors which do not involve the ingestion of a psychoactive drug (e.g. gambling, computer game playing, exercise, sex, and now the Internet). Such diversity has led to new all encompassing definitions of what constitutes addictive behavior.
Throughout my research career examining the psychology of gambling, I have consistently tried to argue that excessive gambling is no different from (say) alcoholism or heroin addiction in terms of the core components of addiction (i.e. salience, tolerance, withdrawal, mood modification, conflict, relapse, etc.). If it can be shown that a behavior like pathological gambling can be a bona fide addiction then there is a precedent that any behavior which can provide continuous rewards in the absence of a psychoactive substance can be potentially addictive (i.e., a behavioral as opposed to a chemical addiction). Such a precedent "opens the floodgates" for other excessive behaviors to be theoretically considered as potential addictions (such as the Internet).
In addition to press reports, academics like myself have alleged that social pathologies are beginning to surface in cyberspace. These have been termed "technological addictions" (Griffiths, 1995; 1996a) and have been operationally defined as non-chemical (behavioral) addictions which involve human-machine interaction. They can either be passive (e.g. television) or active (e.g. computer games) and usually contain inducing and reinforcing features which may contribute to the promotion of addictive tendencies (Griffiths, 1995). Technological addictions can thus be viewed as a subset of behavioral addictions (Marks, 1990) and feature core components of addiction first outlined by Brown (1993) and modified by (Griffiths 1996b), i.e., salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict and relapse (Griffiths, 1996c).
My own research into the area of Internet addiction has been underpinned by three fundamental questions: (1) What is addiction? (2) Does Internet addiction exist? (3) If Internet addiction exists, what are people addicted to? The first question continues to be a much-debated question both amongst psychologists within the field of addiction research as well as those working in other disciplines. I operationally define addictive behavior as any behavior which features all the core components of addiction. It is my contention that any behavior (e.g. Internet use) which fulfils these six criteria are therefore operationally defined as addictions. In the case of Internet addiction it would be:
Salience.This occurs when Internet use becomes the most important activity in the person's life and dominates their thinking (preoccupations and cognitive distortions), feelings (cravings) and behavior (deterioration of socialized behavior). For instance, even if the person is not actually online they will be thinking about the next time that they will be.
Mood modification.This refers to the subjective experiences that people report as a consequence of engaging in Internet use and can be seen as a coping strategy (i.e. they experience an arousing "buzz" of a "high" or paradoxically tranquilizing feel of "escape" or "numbing").
Tolerance. This is the process whereby increasing amounts of Internet use are required to achieve the former mood modification effects. This basically means that for someone engaged in Internet use, they gradually build up the amount of the time they spend online engaged in Internet use, and they gradually build up the amount of the time they spend online engaged in the behavior.
Withdrawal symptoms.These are the unpleasant feeling states and/ or physical effects which occur when Internet use is discontinued or suddenly reduced, e.g., the shakes, moodiness, irritability etc.
Conflict. This refers to the conflicts between the Internet user and those around them (interpersonal conflict), conflicts with other activities (job, social life, hobbies and interests) or from within the individual themselves (intrapsychic conflict and/or subjective feelings of loss of control) which are concerned with spending too much time engaged in Internet use.
Relapse. This is the tendency for repeated reversions to earlier patterns of Internet use to recur and for even the most extreme patterns typical of the height of excessive Internet use to be quickly restored after periods of abstinence or control.
Having operationally defined addiction, it is my firm belief that Internet addiction does indeed exist but that it affects only a very small minority of users (Griffiths, 1998). There appear to be many people who use the Internet excessively but are not addicted as measured by these (or any other) criteria (Griffiths, 2000). The third question is perhaps the most interesting and the most important when it comes to researching in this field. What are people actually addicted to? Is it the process of typing? The medium of communication? Aspects of its specific style (e.g. an anonymous, disinhibiting, non-threatening, non face-to-face interaction)? The information that can be obtained (e.g. pornography)? Specific types of activity (playing role-playing games, playing computer games, gambling etc.)? Talking to others (in chat rooms)? This has led to much debate amongst those of us working in this field. For instance, (Young 1999) claims Internet addiction is a broad term which covers a wide variety of behaviors and impulse control problems. This is categorized by five specific subtypes:
Cybersexual addiction: compulsive use of adult websites for cybersex and cyberporn.
In reply to Young, I have argued (Griffiths, 1999) that many of these excessive users are not "Internet addicts" but just use the Internet excessively as a medium to fuel other addictions. Put very simply, a gambling addict or a computer game addict who engages in their chosen behavior online is not addicted to the Internet. The Internet is just the place where they engage in the behavior. However, in contrast to this, there are case study reports of individuals who appear to be addicted to the Internet itself (e.g. Young, 1996; Griffiths, 1996; 2000). These are usually people who use Internet chat rooms or play fantasy role playing games -- activities that they would not engage in except on the Internet itself. These individuals to some extent are engaged in text-based virtual realities and take on other social personas and social identities as a way of making themselves feel good about themselves. In these cases, the Internet may provide an alternative reality to the user and allow them feelings of immersion and anonymity which may lead to an altered state of consciousness. This in itself may be highly psychologically and/or physiologically rewarding.
As I have argued above, the only way of determining whether nonchemical (i.e. behavioral) addictions such as Internet addiction are addictive in a non-metaphorical sense is to compare them against clinical criteria for other established drug-ingested addictions. However, most people researching in the field have failed to do this which has perpetuated the skepticism shown in many quarters of the addiction research community. The main problems with the addiction criteria suggested by most researchers in the field (e.g. Brenner, 1997; Scherer, 1997; Young, 1998), is that the measures used (i) have no measure of severity, (ii) have no temporal dimension, (iii) have a tendency to overestimate the prevalence of problems, and (iv) take no account of the context of Internet use. There are also serious concerns about the sampling methods used. For instance, Young (1998a, 1998b) examined excessive Internet usage using an adapted version of the DSM-IV criteria for psychoactive substance dependence (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). Although Young should be congratulated for putting the concept of Internet addiction on the academic agenda, it is worth noting that most of Young's research has relied on self-selected samples who reply to adverts asking for "avid Internet users" (mainly middle-aged women who took the time to fill out her Internet questionnaires). Any respondent who scored three or more affirmative responses on the adapted version of the DSM-IV was operationally defined as "Internet dependent". It is unlikely that very many of her dependent Internet users was a bona fide Internet addict (particularly because those defined as Internet-dependent only had to score three or more on the dependency checklist).
None the surveys to date (see Griffiths  for an overview) conclusively show that Internet addiction exists or is problematic to anyone but a small minority. At best, they indicate that Internet addiction may be prevalent in a significant minority of individuals but that more research using validated survey instruments and other techniques (e.g. in-depth qualitative interviews) are required. Excessive usage in a majority of cases appears to be purely symptomatic (e.g. they are in an internet-related job or in an online relationship) except for an exceedingly tiny minority. Case studies of excessive Internet users may provide better evidence of whether Internet addiction exists by the fact that the data collected are much more detailed. Even if just one case study can be located it indicates that Internet addiction actually does exist -- even if it is unrepresentative. My own case study accounts (Griffiths, 2000) show that the Internet can be used to counteract other deficiencies in the person's life (e.g. relationships, lack of friends, physical appearance, disability, coping etc.). Most excessive Internet users spend vast amounts of time online for social contact (mostly for chatroom services). As these cases show, text-based relationship can obviously be rewarding for some people and is an area for future research. Whether this is a bona fide addiction or not, some research has observed that heavy Internet users gradually spent less time with real people in their lives in exchange for solitary time in front of a computer and/or in online relationships (Young, 1998a, 1998b; Griffiths, 2000). There is no doubt that Internet usage among the general population will continue to increase over the next few years and that if social pathologies (including Internet addiction) do exist then this is certainly an area for development that should be of interest and concern to all those involved in the addiction research field. The time has come for the addiction research community to take Internet addiction seriously.
Internet Addiction: Coping Styles, Expectancies, and Treatment Implications
- Brand, Matthias, Christian Laier and Kimberly S.Young, Internet Addiction: Coping Styles, Expectancies, and Treatment Implications. Frontiers of Psychology, 11 November 2014, p1-14.
- Casha, Hilarie, Cosette D. Raea, Ann H. Steel and Alexander Winkler. Internet Addiction: A Brief Summary of Research and Practice, reSTART Internet Addiction Recovery Program, Fall City, WA 98024, 2012, p1-7.
Reflection Exercise #3
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