Internet Addiction: Problem or Pathology?

Researchers at Stanford University have discovered what they say is more evidence that compulsive use of the Internet may be more than just a bad habit.

“Potential markers of problematic Internet use seem present in a sizable proportion of adults,” the researchers concluded in an article published in CNS Spectrums: The International Journal of Neuropsychiatric Medicine.

“This is the largest study by far to try to understand how widespread this problem might be,” lead author of the article, Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, director of the Impulse Control Disorders Clinic at Stanford University’s school of medicine, told TechNewsWorld.

Need Their Net

Through a random-digit-dial telephone survey of 2,513 adults in the United States, the Stanford team found that of the almost 70 percent of respondents who were Internet users, 13.7 percent found it hard to stay away from the Net for more than several days at a time.

That number is higher than that seen in prior research on the problem, according to Hilarie Cash, co-founder of Internet/Computer Addiction Services in Redmond, Wash. “Earlier research had shown about six percent of the population struggling with this,” she told TechNewsWorld.

The researchers also discovered that 8.7 percent of Web users in the survey attempted to conceal non-essential Internet use from family, friends and employees.

“One sign of addiction is secrecy, hiding, lying about it,” Cash observed.

Disorder or Symptom?

Now that they’ve unearthed significant signs of problematic use of the Internet by a significant proportion of Netsters, the researchers said more inquiry must be performed to hash out whether Internet addition is an independent disorder or the symptom of other psychopathologies.

“If it’s a symptom of other disorders, such as depression, then treating those disorders should help treat the Internet behavior,” Aboujaoude explained. “If it’s not directly linked to any other condition, then more specific therapeutic tools should be devised to target the behavior.”

While the numbers indicate that a subset of people might have a problem with Internet use, the researchers, in a statement, stressed that it’s premature to say whether people in the sample actually have a clinical disorder.

More Than Porn

Some practitioners, though, have few doubts that a clinical disorder exists.

Internet addiction is its own disorder, Cash contended. “You can take people without any clinical disorder whatsoever and they can still get hooked on the Internet and become addicted,” she said.

“I have worked with a number of clients who did not have any diagnosable disorder, but got hooked on the Internet,” Cash added.

Most of Cash’s Internet addiction cases involve pornography and gaming. “But we know that there are other things that people get hooked to,” she observed. “They get hooked to gambling, chat and blogging.”

Defined by Losses

“For those of us working in the trenches with the addicts, we recognize it as a new disorder,” she noted. “It just doesn’t have the official stamp of approval.”

That stamp of approval is a listing in the “bible” for head cases, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition.

However, the researchers acknowledged in their article that problematic Internet use has features found in impulse control disorders recognized in that manual. “The affected user experiences a repetitive, intrusive urge to perform an act that is pleasurable in the moment but that causes subsequent distress or functional impairment,” they wrote.

“I define it in terms of losses,” Maressa Hecht Orzack, founder of the Computer Addiction Study Center at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., said of Internet addiction.

“There are people who are losing out on family relationships,” she told TechNewsWorld. “They lose contact with family members. They lose sleep. They can’t get up for work and lose their jobs. They get divorced.”

Bait and Addict

In their article, the researchers called for further exploration of sociocultural factors contributing to Internet addiction.

“Social isolation and the desire for connectedness, the thrill and freedom brought on by online anonymity, and the extreme, unregulated, advertising tools used to lure individuals to Internet venues all likely play a role in promoting problematic Internet use,” they wrote.

“These factors,” Aboujaoude added, “can initially attract the person to the Internet, and, for a proportion of individuals, the Internet can become a consuming habit that replaces their non-virtual social life and that negatively interferes with their personal and professional lives.”

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