Why 'Internet Addiction' Is Not the Right Term for Digital Dependence

By May Wilkerson 03/24/16

One psychologist argues that saying someone is addicted to the Internet is like saying an alcoholic is addicted to the bottle.

Why 'Internet Addiction' Is Not the Right Term for Digital Dependence
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“Internet addiction” is sweeping the country, and the world, as the media has widely reported. But is “Internet addiction” the right term for compulsive internet usage? Mark Griffiths, of Nottingham Trent University, argues that calling extreme Internet use an "addiction" is “not as simple as you may think.”

He cites a recent study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, which involved 100 adult volunteers who were deprived of Internet access for four hours. They were then asked to name the first color they thought of, and then given 15 minutes to access any websites of their choosing.

After another 15-minute period, they were again asked to think of the first color that came to mind. All participants were also asked to complete an Internet Addiction Test (IAT) to assess their level of dependence on the web.

Researchers found that participants who were classified as "high-problem [Internet] users," based on their IAT scores, were more likely to choose a color that was prominent on the websites they had just visited. This was not the case for those who were not classified as Internet addicts.

"The Internet addicts chose a color associated with the websites they had just visited [and this] suggests that aspects of the websites viewed after a period without the net became positively valued," said study lead, Phil Reed.

He added: "Similar findings have been seen with people who misuse substances, with previous studies showing that a cue associated with any drug that relieves withdrawal becomes positively valued itself." This study was the first to identify this effect among a behavioral addiction (Internet usage) rather than a chemical addiction, like alcoholism.

However, Griffiths argues that the term "Internet addiction" remains problematic. He notes that the sample size of this study was small, with only 12 people. And that the IAT scale used to classify “addicts” is outdated. Today, the suggested criteria for Internet disorder as stated in the latest edition of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) rely on more complex tools to assess the disorder, whereas the IAT scale is a simple, 20-question test.

He also explains that Internet addiction may be a symptom of a different type of addiction. For example, people addicted to online gaming are actually gambling addicts, and people addicted to online shopping are shopping addicts. The Internet is just the medium where they engage in their addictive behavior.

Certain activities, like social networking, could be seen as more legitimate Internet addiction, since they only exist online. But Griffiths points out that people addicted to social networking sites are actually addicted to these particular sites, rather than to the Internet as a whole—and should therefore be called “social networking addicts” instead. Ultimately, he argues that saying someone is addicted to the Internet is like saying an alcoholic is addicted to the bottle.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.