By Emily Salvaterra, KT Hanson, Gonzalo Brenner, Hannah Jackson
So just how many of those links did you check out? After clicking on the first one, did you want to click on another? Did you fight the urge or just keep clicking?
How Much is Too Much? When a Habit Goes Too Far
Almost 25% of the people in the world are active Internet users. More than 100 million Facebook users log on at least once per day. Nine blogs are created each minute. As advancements in Internet technology continue to make the world smaller and smaller, new users are plugging into the Net at an unbelievable pace. But what happens when these users are logging on too often? Where do you draw the line between harmless and harmful?
Many experts today are asking these questions about Internet usage. The Internet can be a valuable tool for accessing information, making connections, and maintaining relationships. People all over the world use their cell phones, laptops, and home computers to access the Internet and branch out in all directions on the information superhighway. But for some, one wrong turn changes the Internet from a mode of communication to a medium of compulsion.
The Process of Escalation
Remember what your life was like without the Internet? We don’t. And we don’t particularly want to imagine life without it either. Today we live in a fast-paced technology-loving age where the answers to most any question are just a mouse click away. Unfortunately, this is just part of the problem when it comes to Internet addiction.
Over the years, the Internet has become too stimulating, too accessible, too anonymous, and too interactive. To put it simply, it’s way too easy to get sucked into the Internet. For some people, an everyday habit of checking Facebook on your new BlackBerry (a.k.a. CrackBerry) can turn into a full-blown compulsion in a matter of weeks.
Dr. Youmasu J. Siewe, the state specialist for public health education in Oklahoma, helps to define the escalation process. According to Siewe, Internet addiction follows a model of behavior similar to those of other compulsions. His six-step process involves:
(1) Reinforcement; the addictive behavior produces pleasurable physical and psychological states of mind that leads to
(2) Compulsion or craving: The individual feels a strong compelling need or urge to engage in the behavior, and thereafter plans for the next opportunity to perform the behavior, which leads to
(3) Withdrawal symptoms: the individual feels very uncomfortable, obnoxious or irritable if not engaged in the behavior after sometime, leading to
(4) Loss of control: the individual loses control over the behavior, and becomes unable to block the desire to engage in the behavior, and likely to deny that the behavior is a problem, which leads to
(5) Escalation or tolerance: More and more of the behavior is required to produce the desired effect previously felt on a smaller dose/amount of time engaged in the behavior, leading to
(6) Negative consequences: this is when the behavior has serious negative consequences such as problems with school, job performance, difficulties with relationship, health or legal problems.
Of course, this process seems a little extreme for the everyday Internet user. But think about it: have you ever felt that nagging urge to check your email or Facebook on your iPhone right after you checked it on your laptop? Does receiving a new e-mail or stumbling upon a new website put a smile on your face?
Sometimes simple daily pleasures like these can slowly lead to serious compulsive behaviors. One law student’s blog illustrates this notion beautifully:
I have this routine I go through whenever I sit down in front of my computer. There are a number of websites I have to go to, different email accounts I have to check, and of course my school’s website and information center…Lately this has escalated into going through this routine several times in a study session. I am getting absolutely nothing done and I’m wasting a lot of time.
The Needle or the Heroin?
The chances of recognizing the signs of Internet addiction in yourself or someone you know can be slim. Dr. Hilarie Cash runs Internet/Computer Addiction Services in Redmond, Washington, and was quoted in the New York Times in 2005 alongside one of her patients, “Mike” who has been struggling with Internet addiction for years. Mike was quoted in the article as saying “I’m still wrestling with the idea that it’s a problem because I like it so much.”
Mike’s statement echoes the sentiment of many Internet users and psychiatric professionals: is compulsive Internet use a serious addiction? While the DSM-IV was released in 1994 before the Internet went mainstream, Internet addiction may get recognition in the DSM-V which will be released in 2012. This possible addition is already highly contested. Experts debate on a range of issues, including the potential dangers of compulsive Internet use and whether the Internet is a medium of addiction or an addiction in itself.
The argument about whether the Internet is the medium or the drug itself (the needle or the heroin, as they say) is the most important hurdle keeping Internet addiction from becoming a legitimately recognized diagnosis.
Those who oppose recognizing and legitimizing Internet addiction as a diagnosis worry that its inclusion in the DSM-IV may set a precedent that will eventually lead to the establishment of other disorders considered ‘ridiculous’ by the general public. However, by saying that Internet addiction doesn’t deserve recognition, its skeptics threaten to alienate the thousands of people who feel the pull of Internet compulsion on a daily basis.
But those who believe being addicted to the Internet is like being addicted to the needle forget one thing: there are other ways to abuse heroin without the use of a needle. But without the Internet, sites like Facebook, Google, and Wikipedia would not exist. You can’t have one without the other.
Just like heroin, excessive use of the Internet has been proven to have harmful side effects. Researchers in the Netherlands created a Compulsive Internet Use Scale to establish a correlation between compulsive Internet usage and negative repercussions. In three surveys done on “heavy Internet users”, at least 45% of those surveyed responded “very often” to questions like “Do you prefer to use the Internet instead of spending time with others?” and “Do you feel restless, frustrated, or irritated when you cannot use the Internet?” Many question the legitimacy of a recognized Internet Addiction Disorder, but numbers show that compulsive Internet use is all too real for some.
The Internet Paradox
It appears that the explosion of technology and the consequential increase in Internet accessibility have delivered a fast, exciting and legal drug to the masses; thus playing a major part in getting people hooked on the Web.
But little do the ever-connected masses know, this seemingly god-sent device they’ve been using to keep up with their friends, family, and coworkers may alienate them in the future.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human Computer Interaction Institute coined the term “Internet paradox” in 1998 to explain this phenomenon. The term refers to the contradictory nature of the Internet: many use the web as a tool to develop and maintain relationships, but doing this through the use of a computer ironically leads to a lack of commitment to face-to-face relationships.
Surveys done in the Pittsburgh, PA area conducted by the Carnegie Mellon team revealed that “greater use of the Internet was associated with declines in participants’ communication with family members in the household, declines in the size of their social circle, and increases in their depression and loneliness.”
So, while you’re reading this, you may want to ask yourself how long it has been since you’ve had an actual face-to-face conversation with someone you know. If it’s been awhile, don’t stop reading now; you might learn something you can discuss with your friends in person later!
This is Your Brain On Drugs: Neurological Effects of Internet Use
So far we have talked about how compulsive Internet usage can affect interpersonal communication and relationships, but not about its effects on your brain.
We usually associate biological side effects with substances like methamphetamine, cocaine, and alcohol, but new research shows that non-intoxicant addictions also alter your brain’s chemical play. Examples of this work include the imaging of gambling and of online video game play, highlighting similarities to brain regions that are active in substance abusers. As the Chih-Hung Ko (2009) papers states,
The results demonstrate that the neural substrate of cue-induced gaming urge/craving in online gaming addiction is similar to that of the cue-induced craving in substance dependence. The above-mentioned brain regions have been reported to contribute to the craving in substance dependence, and here we show that the same areas were involved in online gaming urge/craving. Thus, the results suggest that the gaming urge/craving in online gaming addiction and craving in substance dependence might share the same neurobiological mechanism.
Are You Sure You Want to Log Off?
So it seems we have just struck the tip of the iceberg in terms of our love-hate relationship with the Internet. The Internet provides so many necessities, from online grocery shopping to staying connected with friends, yet it can steal our time, blunt our social skills, and fuel other addictions like online gambling.
If Internet addiction has escalated this far, this fast in such a short period of time, maybe the future will resemble the world of Wall E—where humans have evolved into mindless drones attached to an inescapable virtual reality device of Internet madness. Whatever the future, the Internet is here to stay—love it or hate it.
Now that we’ve warned you, here are some more links. Can you resist?
Some Proponents of Internet Addiction
American Journal of Psyciatry Editorial Calling for Internet Addiction as a DSM-V Diagnostic Category
Young (1999), Internet Addiction: Symptoms, Evaluation and Treatment
Mind Hacks: Collected Pieces
Dr. Shock: Collected Pieces
Yellowlees & Marks (2005), Problematic Internet Use or Internet Addiction?
Dowling & Quirk (2008), Screening for Internet Dependence (pdf)
Kraut et al. (2002), Internet Paradox Revisited (pdf)
Pallanti et al. (2006), The Shorter PROMIS Scale and Internet Addiction (pdf)