Internet Addiction: Fact or Fantasy?

As society continually moves towards an age in which its members become reliant upon the internet for a wide array of tasks, one industry has recently taken the world by storm: persistent online gaming. Persistent browser-based games are those that have no set time period on how long one can play. In turn, gaming companies are motivated to create the most innovative and entertaining product possible in order to keep their customers engaged and to make a profit.

In 2014, Intel reported that there were 711 million PC gamers in the world, which is approximately one out of every ten people. This huge market has led to a demand for PCs specifically designed for gaming.

2011 Jesse Knish Photography

Gaming Developers Conference 2011. Image Credit: Jesse Knish Photography, Official GDC via Flikr.

When participating in these online games, users often find themselves spending more time on the computer than originally planned. This has led to a newfound psychological effect known as Internet addiction, in which people spend an excessive amount of time on the Internet, often without conscious control according to Maressa Orzack, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School.

This new persistent, compulsive behavior of online gamers has raised the question of whether or not Internet addiction is a valid medical diagnosis. Some psychiatrists argue that Internet addiction shows the same features of excessive use, withdrawal symptoms, and negative consequences that are classically associated with substance abuse disorders; however, there is little psychological data to substantiate these claims.

Dr. Kimberly Young, a licensed psychologist and a world expert on Internet addiction disorder, has done extensive work on what she calls Internet Gaming Disorder: “an addiction to online video games, role-playing games, or any interactive gaming environment available through the Internet.” Many online persistent games, including the popular Grand Theft Auto and World of Warcraft, have been labeled as heroinware: “an addictive computer game, especially one played to the extent where it interferes with the everyday life of a player”. These games often provide chat features that give users a social aspect they may avoid in their offline reality.

According to Dr. Young, this disorder can lead to many harmful consequences, such as fatigue, carpal tunnel syndrome, back/neck/eye problems, and lack of social skills. This leads to unsatisfactory performance at school and/or work and weakened relationships with family and peers.

A 2009 study conducted by Douglas Gentile, an Iowa State Professor of Psychology, exhibited the prevalence of the disorder by showing that approximately 8% of gamers between the ages of 8 and 18 suffer from video game addiction. According to this data, video game addiction has become a prevalent problem in today’s youth that has many detrimental outcomes.

Despite what some psychologists such as Dr. Kimberly Young claim, the American Psychological Association shows that published studies on Internet addiction are few and far between, and most are surveys chock-full with selection bias and no control groups.  Many psychologists also hesitate to use the word “addiction” to describe the phenomena of people spending too much time online.

Dr. Sara Kiesler, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University and  co-author of one of the few controlled studies on Internet usage, says that it is “misleading to characterize behaviors as ‘addictions’ on the basis that people say they do too much of them.” She also reports that there is no established research that conclusively proves that the disorder of Internet addiction can be separated from other psychological problems such as loneliness or excessive gaming.

While the term “Internet addiction” has become popularly coined to describe those who spend excessive time on the Internet, internet addiction differs from other medical addictions in some very important ways.

So how does one decide whether or not Internet addiction is a psychiatric phenomena? Luckily, psychiatrists have formally defined criteria for the validity of psychiatric diagnoses as follows:

  1. A real clinical description of the disorder including the symptoms, profiles of those who typically suffer from the condition and characteristics of individuals affected by the disorder
  2. Lab studies must be conducted to back the information up
  3. Other disorders using exclusion criteria must be eliminated from the mix
  4. Follow up studies must be conducted
  5. Family studies must be conducted

Currently, Internet addiction does not meet the requirements to be considered a legitimate diagnosis, although it certainly comes close to many of them. Many medical professionals are still on the fence on whether Internet addiction is real or not, and many argue for further research. Researchers are unable to determine so far whether Internet addiction is its own disorder or simply a symptom of some underlying psychiatric problem. The question that remains is Internet addiction fact or fantasy? For now, online gamers can defend themselves with this one simple fact: Internet addiction is still fiction.

About the Author

Jonathan's iPhone Pictures and Videos 430-1Jonathan Waring is an Athens native and an undergraduate student studying Computer Science at the University of Georgia. When he’s not watching Netflix in his room, he can be found watching Netflix in his friends’ rooms. He aspires to pursue an advanced degree in Medical Informatics and to one day work on disease tracking software at the CDC. As a reminder he is just one person: not statistically significant nor representative. You can email him at jwaring8@uga.edu or follow him on Twitter @waringclothes. More from Jonathan Waring.