Puzzling over ‘Internet addiction’

While the US mental healthcare field is considering whether “Internet addiction” is a disorder, it doesn’t seem to understand how vast and diverse Internet use is. When a CNN reporter asks psychiatry professor Charles O’Brien at University of Pennsylvania – chair of the working group that determines whether disorders make an official list in the United States – about it, both use “Internet addiction” and “gaming addiction” interchangeably. Gaming addiction maybe (only because slightly more specific), but the Internet? The Internet is basically a mirror of almost every aspect of human life, updated in real time. It’s a pipeline for passive, one-to-many traditional media as well as for user-produced, omni-directional participatory media. It hosts entertainment, communications, research, politics, etc., on all kinds of devices, including those that can be used while one’s walking around. So to what, specifically, would one be addicted?

“We think [Internet addiction] is something,” CNN quotes Dr. O’Brien as saying. But then he refers only to gaming on the Internet, not the Internet as a whole: “I even went to Beijing to visit a hospital that is dedicated to what the Chinese call Internet addiction, and it was full of young men who had been brought in by their parents because they had been spending hours a day and neglecting their studies and their health, even, playing these various games. Typically it’s ‘World of Warcraft’ that they’re playing. But they don’t really have what we consider to be evidence [that this is a disorder].” He also refers to his own son’s gaming online – not to his son’s Internet use in general.

One thing not clear is why leading healthcare experts don’t seem to be following peer-reviewed research about people’s use of the Internet and social media (online and Net-connected console games are social media, after all, as is Guitar Hero played by a bunch of people in a family room)? I’m not seeing indications they’re looking at that research in their comments on media addiction. In this interview, for that matter, we’re not even seeing an effort to decide what people might be addicted to – all digital-media activity, including communication?

Zooming in on gaming

O’Brien told CNN that, when online, people’s brains light up in the same way they do when experiencing other pleasures. “They just gradually spend more and more time doing it, and they begin neglecting other activities and their friends. Their friends are on the Internet.” Right. So they’re not actually neglecting their friends, right? Has he seen the research, cited by Jane McGonigal, PhD, showing that gamers under 18 spend 61% of their game time with real-life friends and family, rather than alone or with strangers” (from her bestselling book Reality Is Broken)?

Have the health researchers read the research finding that “gaming practices are extremely diverse in nature and form,” that “much of the public debate [and maybe the mental health field’s?] has ignored or overlooked contexts and practices of game play. The focus has been almost exclusively on what people hope or fear kids will get from their play, rather than on what they actually do on an ongoing, everyday basis” (from the results of a three-year study of youth in digital media, the MIT Press book Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living & Learning with New Media). Those forms of gaming practice include “killing time”; “hanging out” with people (including those “real life friends”); “recreational” gaming that’s competitive or requires mastery; gaming that involves “mobilizing and organizing” (such as guilds, clans, or teams); and “augmented gaming” or gaming plus other stuff (including community), such as game guides, blogging, wikis, cheats, mods, hacks, etc.).

And all those forms concern “just” gaming. Will Dr. O’Brien, his working group for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and their international counterparts be able to come up with an addiction that covers all of that in video and online gaming, much less “the Internet”? I guess we stay tuned.

Related links

* A blog post in Psychology Today last winter looked at “Facebook addiction,” which I believe is more an addiction to one’s friends and what’s going on with them (and sometimes to the drama that boils up) than to a Web site. I agree with writer Michael Austin where he advises that we not expect connecting on Facebook to be the all of connecting with fellow human beings, but I suspect the majority of us, including most teens, don’t actually have that expectation (though we all, not just teens, sometimes let ourselves get caught up in “the drama,” eh?).
* More from author and game designer Jane McGonigal
* “A parent & educator on what gaming can teach”
* A media professor (and parent) on what parents can do to foster experiential learning in their children’s gaming
* Back in 2008, I posted psychiatrist Gerald Block’s view on the complexity of gaming as well as what might be called addiction to it
* See also this about a report I helped put together, “Youth Safety on a Living Internet.”
* Example of a medical journal’s mis-citing of the research


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