A few years ago, in a course I taught a course in media studies we covered an American-Israeli produced documentary, Web Junkie (2013), which focusses on internet addiction in China (wǎngyǐn 网瘾) which is classified as a clinical disorder. The film focuses on the treatment used in Chinese rehabilitation centers. The film explores one of the bootcamps in a suburb of Beijing that addresses internet addiction, also called “electronic opium,” examining the prevalence and treatment of this condition in China. Directed by Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam, this film is a superb exposé on what is happening within online youth culture inside China. Still, the viewer easily walks away from this film wondering if internet addiction isn’t part of a larger cultural problem on an international scale.
The World Health Organization classified gaming addiction as a mental health addiction last year calling it “gaming disorder” and last week Senator Josh Hawley unveiled the Social Media Reduction Technology Act, a bill aimed at mitigating what Hawley calls the “risks of internet addiction and psychological exploitation.” As societies across the planet are starting to address internet addiction, not everyone is in agreement that this is a problem and certainly even fewer are in agreement as to its solutions. Where some studies show cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT) work, others such psychiatrists who make up the APA (the American Psychiatric Association) and who publish the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) do not view internet addiction as a mental health disorder and instead categorize it as a “condition for further study.”
Still, there are many who regard what is called Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD) along with Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) as serious conditions which merit further study. In the west addiction is often handled within the twelve-step format or for those who rebuff therapeutic models, many people are finding benefits through life coaching as well as motivational literature and speaking events. For instance, Tony Hoffman, former BMX Elite Pro who placed second at the 2016 World Championships in Medellin, Colombia in the Masters Pro class, is a motivational speaker who deals with addiction advocating for a shift in thinking towards contemporary addiction-recovery processes. And there are even those who are being pro-active in avoiding the very technology that attracts addiction by hiring life coaches for the entire family. In Germany, Thaddaeus Koroma is a celebrity life coach who approaches individual change through a positive model which addresses individual mindsets and which focuses on people-based relationships. In a recent chat with Koroma, he summed up his philosophy to me, “When you start from losing your position you have nothing to lose but everything to gain.” Certainly, the future of healthy social relations depends on the real-life and day-to-day experiences which many attempt to replicate within the detached echo-chamber that is online culture.
I have previously written of the dangers in pathologizing what are perfectly normal human emotions and reactions in this era where there seems to be a drug for every real and imagined condition. Indeed, it would behoove us all to be skeptical of the desire to pathologize behaviors with the immediate cure offered in the form of a pill or a patch and where Big Pharma is generally the end stop. Still, as critical as I am of the tendency in recent decades to pathologize “hyperactive” children or mourning, the evidence of internet addiction both in peer-reviewed studies and in everyday life viewing many an individual fall into a virtual K-hole. I think back to a friend in Manhattan whose colleague, a fellow lawyer, missed an entire week of work and court dates in the mid-1990s due to being unable to get off the internet due to “falling in love” with a man on a dating site. This woman shattered her career in addition to suffering more serious repercussions. Given the growing anger and harassment culture on social media by individuals who practically live their entire waking lives online, it would be inaccurate to claim that there is no such thing as internet addiction, or that internet addiction is not part of a larger mental health condition under whose umbrella might also fall an array of addictions. Most interesting of all—and little-studied—are the links between internet addiction and psychological distress. We clearly have more clinical work to do.
The fundamental question at heart is this: Is internet addiction a result of our stressful cultures where humans are working too many hours, geographically and economically limited to have an “in real life” social life or does internet addiction create the terrain for realizing that one does not need to leave home for a social existence and that the individual can live a social life online? The latter begs larger questions which begin with an evaluation of online socialization and if this form of virtual dialogue can ever truly replace real-life, physical contacts. And if not, what would the limits of healthy internet usage be?
Chinese clinicians contend that internet addiction is having a social online usage that exceeds six hours daily in addition to work and school use of the internet. In the west, there is simply no consensus and those who even view intimating that there is a problem some sort of attempt to curb free speech, a tenuous claim at best since one does not preclude or lead to the other. One 2016 review of the scientific literature by Common Sense Media on this subject shows that the “brains of IGD patients resemble the brains of substance users and pathological gamblers” which further complicates the issue from a cultural perspective.
Indeed, there is a huge cross-over between online addictions to specific platform-oriented addiction (eg. Facebook and Instagram) to online gaming. Even Facebook’s use of big data to snag those more vulnerable to addictive behavior has come under criticism in recent months. From the many online review sites that offer advice for cyber-casinos like Online Pokies to the hundreds of online casinos, we cannot feign ignorance that the internet is a vast scenery of landmines which can easily be manipulated to entrap even the most resistant to gambling. To note, Britain’s recent experiment with fixed-odds betting terminals has proven disastrous with anti-gambling advocates gaining ground this year as they have been successful in reducing the stakes in terminal gambling where the maximum bet went from £100 to £2 in April.
Is internet culture augmenting already innate human qualities or are certain types of persons or cultures more prone to addictive behavior than others? And if so, are there co-morbidities that might make internet addiction a stronger possibility in anyone’s life depending on stress and other social and psychological factors? The Common Sense Media study makes some interesting conclusions:
The issue is far from black and white. It seems clear that, for some adolescents and adults, it is possible to engage with technologies in obsessive or compulsive ways that have severe negative life outcomes, such as poor schoolwork or social withdrawal. Yet, it is not clear whether underlying factors such as depression or social anxiety may be driving unhealthy use of technology.
Ultimately this study makes the recommendation that more research is needed but good judgment tells us to open our eyes to understand the fallout from online culture in all its forms. To say that as a society we need rethink our relationship to the internet for the good of our culture is an understatement. We must seriously consider personal embargoes on our internet use—even if for only one day a week—the second that we realize that we have actually never met most of our “friends” in real life.