There are almost as many types of addiction as there are addicts. One of the most controversial questions in recent addiction research is whether Internet addiction is a distinct addictive disorder. Certainly, overuse of the Internet is a serious problem for many people, but for a behavior to be considered an addiction, it must fulfill certain clinical criteria. So what is an Internet addiction?
Signs and Symptoms
Internet addiction is characterized by an increasing dependence on web-based activities, to the point that a desire to be online at all times undermines an individual's ability to interact or function effectively in the "real world". Addicts may find themselves spending long hours browsing across sites without having any real reason to do so.
Time spent online is not, in itself, enough to distinguish a behavior as an addiction. For example, a researcher or author may legitimately use the Internet for nine hours a day to satisfy certain discrete requirements for their job, while a person who drifts through the online world for no other purpose than escapism may be considered an addict even if they only spend three or four hours a day online, if their online time has become otherwise disruptive.
Another symptom of Internet dependence or addiction is spending disproportionate amounts of time on social networking sites. Again, the issue is not the use of sites like Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest, but rather the dependence that arises when one begins to rely upon those sites as their chief form of human interaction.
The disruptions to a person's life can include a decrease in job or academic performance, relationship troubles or breakdowns, and financial debt or other crisis.
It is worth noting that some studies have shown as many as 25 percent of computer users to exhibit addictive tendencies within six months of beginning to use the Internet. The initial experience is intimidating, but users report a quick transition to feelings of mastery and euphoria comparable to those experienced by drug users.
The is no consensus yet on why some people seem more prone than others to develop an addiction to the Internet. Some studies have shown Internet addicts to often suffer from depression. Critics say this proves that the Internet is not addictive itself, per se, but is rather used as a crutch or a means of self-medicating for depression. Similarly, studies linking Internet addiction to interpersonal stress fail to establish causation, and at best suggest that one type of personality is prone to both behaviors.
A better model might be to consider Internet abuse as a subset of behavior of previously identified addictive personality types. There is a strong overlap of persons who abuse the Internet and those addicted to alcohol, gambling, overeating, or drugs. This could suggest that Internet addiction is more of a risk for those predisposed to reward seeking.
Internet addiction is unusual among addictive behaviors in that it is often self-correcting. Several studies have shown that even severe abusers tend to taper their Internet use off over the course of about a year to levels below the threshold of an addictive disorder.
That said, users may still need assistance in kicking their Internet habit. Fortunately, not only is Internet addiction susceptible to spontaneous remission, it is also highly responsive to interventions and treatment, including counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, and content-control software that helps block a person from the websites that they find most difficult to get away from.
What is an Internet addiction? Is it really right to call it an addiction? Given the young age of the Internet, these are questions that are still in the process of being answered. It is likely that even if it does gain recognition as a discrete disorder, it will retain many features unique to its digital nature. But the Internet is not going anywhere, and we will need to learn how to approach it effectively and safely if we are to avoid it taking over our lives.