The Difficulty of Defining “Internet Addiction”

Oct 7, 2018 | Features

In recent years, the general public has become far more aware of the possible dangers of technology overuse. Chief among these concerns is what is being called “internet addiction,” a term that is used in both informal conversation and more formal scientific papers or news articles. In early September alone, the SF Chronicle, USA Today, The New York Times and The Daily Mail—along with countless other publications—have run articles that mention internet addiction and its supposed effects. It appears in contexts varying from USA Today’s “Obamamania is a burst of optimism in an era of Donald Trump” 

 

to The New York Times opinion piece “The Big Myth About Teenage Anxiety.” It’s been the focus of the Journal of Medical Internet Research and mentioned in the upper school Neuroscience class. However, despite the public interest and rapidly expanding body of research on the subject, there is yet to be a unified definition of internet addiction—or even consensus as to whether or not it exists in the first place. In the DSM-V, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, internet gaming addiction is currently classified as a condition for further study. 

“[Although] I think that as a whole we’re probably going to be just propagating stereotypes and misunderstandings that we have, there’s some evidence of change and I think that people like to know one more thing than the people around them, so that might be a way to harness people’s vanity to get them to figure out what’s going on.”

Luke De

Science Teacher , The Nueva School

An article published in 2014 identified no fewer than 45 tools—including both self-reporting questionnaires and diagnostic criteria models based on the DSM—that have been used to assess internet addiction, and only 17 that have been evaluated more than once in terms of their psychometric properties. Additionally, though many psychologists argue that internet addiction is similar to gambling addiction—and thus ought to be classified as an addiction itself—there is some doubt as to whether internet addiction is a secondary manifestation of a comorbid or underlying psychiatric disorder rather than being an independent issue.

The initial set of criteria for defining internet addiction was proposed by Kimberly S. Young, the founder of the Center for Internet Addiction, in an issue of the CyberPsychology and Behavior journal first published in 1998, nine years prior to the release of the first iPhone. This set of criteria is based loosely upon the DSM criteria for pathological gambling, and characterizes internet addiction as an impulse disorder in which the individual experiences intense preoccupation with internet use, difficulty managing time spent on the internet, irritation when disturbed whilst online, and decreased ‘real world’ interactions.

“I don’t think there’s legislation that deals with addiction as it is mechanistically understood, but I think it is heading that way.”

Luke De

Science Teacher , The Nueva School

Unfortunately, this particular definition encounters the same pitfall as all of the DSM definitions for mental disorders; they are defined based upon behaviors rather than mental states, a fact that introduces a great deal of inherent inaccuracy. This is due to the fact that many mental states can produce the same behavior and, likewise, numerous behaviors can be indicators of a singular mental state.

In this particular case, Luke De, the head of the research program and the neuroscience teacher, has an idea of how the scientific community may go about reducing the impact of this imprecision.

“The trick, as far as fixing it goes, is saying, ‘whatever this thing is, whether it be internet addiction or whatever, let’s define it both behaviorally and mechanistically, so you know it’s this behavior that you see when you have this characteristic,” De said.

Though this list of features may appear to be a unified definition, there is still a lot of debate as to whether or not ‘internet addiction’ can be defined as addiction to ‘the internet’ as an individual entity, even after it is assumed that it can be defined at all. In a 2013 paper, Kuss et al. suggest that there are several distinct subtypes of internet addiction, including online shopping, gaming and social media.

Likewise, Widyanto et al. argue that individuals can be addicted to the experiences or activities presented through an internet-based medium, but not to the internet itself.

That said, even if the scientific community is able to reach consensus as to the definition of internet addiction, De believes that it will be a long time before the new information will reach the general populace, and even longer before any political action is taken relative to the decision. In order to explain what how that maps to a more precise timeframe, he said, “I think a lot of the addiction stuff that we saw in the 90s, 2000s is coming to the surface now, and I don’t think there’s legislation that deals with addiction as it is mechanistically understood, but I think it is heading that way.”

However, there was some of what may debatably be considered hope in terms of how quickly the information would be spread through the population through the vehicle of pop science.

“[Although] I think that as a whole we’re probably going to be just propagating stereotypes and misunderstandings that we have, there’s some evidence of change and I think that people like to know one more thing than the people around them, so that might be a way to harness people’s vanity to get them to figure out what’s going on,” De said. “It is going to be beneficial in calling attention to an issue that is currently not as seen.”

Written by Grace Holmes

Written by Grace Holmes

Staff Writer