Have We Got It All Wrong About Internet Addiction?


In 1995, a New York-based psychiatrist named Ivan Goldberg wrote a post on psycom.net, where he described the symptoms of Internet Addiction Disorder. The symptoms listed ranged from spending ‘a great deal of time in activities related to the Internet’ to staying online ‘for longer periods than was intended.’ This was the first time the phrase ‘Internet Addiction’ had ever been used. Goldberg’s post coincided with a massive leap in the number of Internet users, which had grown by nearly 40 million in just five years. Countless people rushed to diagnose themselves, and the ‘symptoms’ were republished across the virtual world.

But it was only a prank.

Goldberg, like many others of his time, was sceptical of growing over-diagnosis amongst psychiatrists, who would label everything a ‘disorder’. Using the format of the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) – a leading reference for psychiatric diagnosticians world over ­– Goldberg parodied this new ‘disorder’ on the entry for gambling, the only non-substance based addiction in the heavy tome. But two years later, alarmed by the growing numbers of people describing themselves as Internet addicts, Goldberg wrote in the New Yorker that having an Internet Addiction support group “makes as much sense as having a support group for coughers.”

But it was too late, and whether or not Goldberg himself agreed with the term he had proposed, it was being speedily incorporated into diagnoses in those parts of the world where the Internet had established a firm foothold. Countless studies, diagnoses, and cures later, the May 2013 edition of the DSM included Internet Use Disorder in a list of conditions that needed more research. Nevertheless, it was in there – almost enshrined in the psychiatry Bible of doctors worldwide.

Today, it would seem perhaps that we are surrounded by a world of ‘addicts’. The couple at dinner that spends more time looking down at their smart phones than at each other. The teenager who compulsively checks her Instagram feed to see how many ‘likes’ her latest selfie is yielding. The gamers: that special age-defying breed who disappear for days on end into a fantastical world of warcraft and wonder.

But when I was growing up, a lot of parents feared ‘TV Addiction’. Then when we got our first mobile phones and the joy of texting boys framed our teenage years, maybe some could have called that ‘Cellphone Addiction’. And how many of our countrymen and women seem to be afflicted with ‘Cricket Addiction’, obsessively checking scores, ranking teams and fervently staying up at odd hours to catch a test match? So today, when ‘Internet Addiction’ seems to be the phrase of the hour – having been featured in over 100 scientific journals over the past decade – we might need to take a few steps back and ask: is this really addiction? And if so, what is it that so many people are addicted to?

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Fourteen-year-old Tina* hasn’t brushed her teeth for a week. Her hair is unwashed. She shows very little interest in meals, unless she can spoon food into her mouth with one hand whilst holding on to her smart phone with the other. But when she arrives at the Center for Children in Internet and Technology Distress in New Delhi, the staff is not perplexed by her state: they see it all the time. Rahul Verma, the founder of Uday Foundation, the NGO that started up the Center last month, tells me that Tina is just one story of many. There’s 18-year-old Vijay*, studying to become a Chartered Accountant but spending most of his time on Twitter, “giving gaalis upon gaalis”to every public figure he can find online. Or 10-year-old Sahil*, so engrossed in the game he’s playing on his smart phone that he refuses to stop even while eating.

Verma established the Center as a response to the growing number of children expressing anxiety, restlessness, and lethargy towards any activity that didn’t involve being online. Parents, worried about falling school marks and significant changes in their kids’ behaviour, approach the Center for help. This might seem surprising for a country where, according to an estimate by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), less than 16 percent of the population has access to the Internet. But as many of our own lives stand testimony to, life within this group is very deeply involved in the digital world.

Verma astutely tells me, the Internet is not the culprit. “See, most children are nowadays using the Internet for their schoolwork and projects. But when it comes to social media, everything is different.” For example, there’s the website Ask.fm, where after creating a profile, other users can ask you questions that you then answer. For teenagers, these typically tend to be questions about classmates, friends and enemies, with answers on display for everyone to see. Or Instagram (Verma tells me, “I couldn’t have imagined was addictive!”), where posting selfies and accruing ‘likes’ can take up the best part of a teenager’s day. Or those elusive WhatsApp groups everyone wants to be invited to, except the ‘cool kids’ are running the show.

If you too have clear recollections of the deep, miserable anxieties of teenage years that centered on fragile cliques, gossip on the rampage, and being invited to sit on the ‘right’ table at the cafeteria, ‘hell is social media’ seems an accurate motto for being a teenager today. But is this ‘addiction’? Despite the flurry of media articles that have labelled his work as “fighting Internet addiction”, Verma would argue that addiction isn’t the right word for what he’s tackling. “It’s a distress,” he tells me. “And it comes from not understanding the medium. When you bought your first car, you read the manual carefully, studied the cautions, and knew how it worked. But social media doesn’t come with a manual.” I don’t blame these kids for being overly stressed out when every mean thing that’s said about them is the digital property of hundreds, even thousands, of other people. Anxiety, restlessness and even depression sound like feasible consequences of this hypervisibility, especially at an age when our sense of who we are is in itself such a fraught topic.

And it’s not just kids. Plenty of adults are using social media in ways that indicate a deep desire for a connection with others. Recent reportage shows that the phrase ‘I am lonely’ is entered into Google 46,000 times a day, just from India. And for the more cynical, even if our relationship with social media is more about a perverse curiosity in others’ lives or a need to have our selves validated by a wider public, can we call this an ‘addiction’?

Online gaming is identified as the biggest culprit in the global Internet Addiction diagnostic universe. The ‘most addictive’ of these are the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games or MMORPGs which, as the mouthful of acronym suggests, involve millions of players connected through an online game where they adopt personas, or avatars. World of Warcraft at nearly 7 million subscribersis one of the most popular, but despite its now-falling membership (pegged at around 1 million in 2013), so is Second Life – a parallel universe where you can get a job, build a house, and even get married: all online.

Across the world, sleep-related disorders are being attributed to gaming, and in an extreme 2005 case, a South Korean gamer died from exhaustion after playing the game StarCraft for 50 hours at a stretch. And while it’s clear that not everyone has a healthy relationship to these alternative worlds, the idea of escaping into a fantasy is not entirely without appeal.

Here’s the question though: if people are over-using certain forums on the Internet, why isn’t it known as ‘Gaming Addiction’? (Incidentally, Internet Gaming Disorder is a proposed category for the next edition of the DSM) Or why isn’t social media overuse categorized under an existing disorder depending on the particularities of why a person is using the forum, such as paranoia or compulsive behaviour?

A 2010 American documentary series called My Strange Addiction focuses on people with a variety of compulsive behaviours: addictions to eating toilet paper, bodybuilding, cleaning – the list is as long as it is weird. But as the show lays out in fine print, these aren’t addictions in themselves. Rather, they’re manifestations of clinical disorders including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, schizophrenia, and psychosis. When it comes to the actual psychology of addiction, most people working in the field are in agreement that the root cause is something far deeper than Instagram.

There’s no denying that a girl who has stopped eating because she’s checking her Facebook home feed or a young man on the verge of death while playing an online game is in need of therapy, counselling, and even medication. But eating toilet paper isn’t the cause of the problem; it’s a symptom of something else.

Tackling the overuse of social media or gaming through the umbrella term ‘Internet Addiction’ is like trying to end the problem of street sexual violence by barricading the street. All that happens is that the perpetrators move to another space, and none of us can use the street.

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In 2012, a study by security app Lookout found that 58 percent of American smartphone owners check their phones at least once every hour, where many take their phones to bed or the bathroom. The term ‘mobile phone addiction’ is littered all across the Internet, but as in the case of most behavioural addictions, researchers admit that the causes behind this phenomenon are way more complicated that the phone itself, and can include the need to assuage panic and stress.

The ‘addiction’ to technologies goes back further than mobile phones. In 2002, an article in the Scientific American called “Television Addiction is No Mere Metaphor” sought to demonstrate the withdrawal symptoms experienced by families who were forced to stop watching TV due to various circumstances. The authors of the piece liken this withdrawal to that of any addictive substance. And though they haven’t had much luck getting the rest of the scientific community on board, the average socially conscious parent will be wary of the perceived dangers of ‘TV Addiction’ on their growing children.

And it would appear that the latest addition to the list of tech-culprits is, of course, the Internet.

Whether or not technology itself can be addictive is up for a debate that is perhaps best left to the future editions of the DSM. But what the term ‘Internet Addiction’ does – apart from mistaking symptoms for causes – is that it changes the nature of the Internet in the public’s imagination. The Internet is not justa tool or a thing you can become addicted to – it’s a public space that houses various platforms. Things can be good or bad or addictive. A space, on the other hand, is made up of the people (including governments and companies and power structures) that populate it. And a failure to recognize this essential characteristic of the virtual world feeds into a wider discourse that is all-too-keen to paint the Internet as an essentially bad and morally corrosive influence.

In India, the Dangers of the Internet are touted far and wide, with plenty of tantalizing references to feed off. There’s the DPS MMS ‘scandal’ that dragged a schoolgirl’s blowjob into the realm of public property. Or MTV India’s #Webbed, a reality TV show with the tagline “The Internet is a great place to make friends; a better place for faceless predators”. For many families, cyber cafes are often equated with pornography and gratuitous sex, leading to a scenario where teenagers are frequently banned from using them. And as for mobile phones, most of us laughingly heard of the atrocious remark by BJP Rajya Sabha member Raghunandan Sharma in which he declared that unmarried girls should not be allowed mobile phones. It’s of course less of a laughing matter if you’re one of the countless young women in this country who is denied access to Internet on the basis that it’s “morally corrupting”.

Like any public space, the Internet is not a homogenous entity. Rather, it is an arena populated by billions of other spaces and forums, where people across the world can use their voices and be heard.Access to the Internet, like access to any public platform where your voice matters, has been shown to contribute to the empowerment of marginalized communities world over, from women to the queer community to minority religions.

In 2011, a United Nations report declared access to the Internet a human right: something that each and every one of us is entitled to. If we take this logic further, saying someone is addicted to the Internet because they’re always on Facebook is like saying someone who has agoraphobia (a fear of wide, open spaces) is addicted to housing.

And the first way to arrive at the correct diagnosis is to get our words right.

*Names changed

This piece was originally published on Yahoo Originals on 13 August 2014