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Internet Addiction

November 21, 2018

What is Internet Addiction and How is it Diagnosed?

Richard Gilbert, PhD

There are two broad categories of addiction. The first category, of course, is Substance Abuse, where the individual is driven to take a physical substance, like alcohol or drugs, into the body. The second category is called a “Process or Behavioral Addiction,” where the person has a relentless need to engage in a behavior or process such as shopping, sex, or gambling, or to participate in Internet-based activities such as surfing, checking, posting, chatting, texting, and gaming. Collectively, this set of consuming Internet activities is referred to as “Internet Addiction” and, in the 25 years since the Internet became a major aspect of mass culture, it has become the most prevalent behavioral addiction of our time.

It’s important to mention that the Internet often serves as a platform to facilitate process addictions like shopping, sex, and gambling. When this happens, the primary behavioral addiction is to the activity being facilitated, not to the Internet per se. Thus, a preoccupation with online pornography or shopping is more about sexuality or shopping than an issue of Internet Addiction. However, when an individual frequently uses the Internet to engage in a process addiction, the time online may become excessive and problematic itself. Thus, Internet Addiction can be both a primary behavioral addiction and a secondary behavioral addiction due to its role in enabling a primary addiction.

Given that the Internet is a significant part of all of our lives, how can we distinguish between healthy, active engagement in online activity and addictive use? According to Kimberly Young, one of the pioneers in the field, there are eight symptoms of internet addiction that raise concerns about problematic use:

  • Cognitive preoccupation (continually thinking about going online)
  • Increased tolerance (needing to spend more and more time online to get the same amount of satisfaction)
  • Unsuccessful attempts to decrease use
  • Withdrawal symptoms when access is denied
  • Staying online much longer than needed
  • Secretive behavior or lying about online activity
  • Negative emotional or practical consequences as a result of online activity
  • Use of the Internet to reduce negative mood states

With these criteria in mind, Young developed a reliable 20-item questionnaire called the Internet Addiction Test or IAT. It’s not a perfect measure. Most significantly, it was developed prior to 2007 when the revolution in mobile (ubiquitous) computing began, smartphones became must-have devices, and new variants of Internet Addiction emerged such as compulsive checking of texts, emails, and notifications. It is also when a condition called “Nomophobia,” came into prominence. Nomophobia literally stands for “No Mobile Phone Phobia” and refers to the experience of significant anxiety and a sense of personal incompleteness that occurs when an individual is separated from his or her mobile phone due to it being lost, misplaced, or forgotten. Because the IAT fails to capture these newer aspects of Internet Addiction, several other measures are being developed and tested. However, the IAT is still a useful, general screening measure for Internet Addiction.

In the next post on Internet Addiction, I’ll address whether the goal in treating Internet Addiction is complete abstinence or to achieve a balanced level of use.

Richard Gilbert is Professor of Psychology of Loyola Marymount University and the Founding Director of The P.R.O.S.E. (Psychological Research on Synthetic Environments) Project, a research lab that investigates the psychological and cultural impact of leading-edge digital technologies such as virtual and augmented reality and artificial intelligence. In 2011, he and his colleagues published the first article ever written on addiction to virtual reality, virtual worlds, and the emerging 3-dimensional Internet.

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