Observations about Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD)

Clearly, there are signs not only that unmediated talk may be addictive, and that
the purposes to which it is put may be harmful. The same concerns have been raised
about excessive use of the Internet. Perhaps some lessons may be learned from thinking
about the absurdity of Communication Addiction Disorder that may be instructive in
conceptualizing Internet Addiction Disorder.

First, it is extremely important to consider the nature of the activities undertaken
through the communication rather than simply the extent of the communication activity
alone. It is important to compare what people are doing on the Internet, not with doing
unspecified presumably benign activity offline (the “you should go out and get some
fresh air and make friends” argument), but with direct parallel behavior—spending time
in bars trying to meet people, “cruising,” flirting with strangers, reading “trash novels,”
masturbating, and consuming pornography, at one end of social acceptability; watching
television, gathering information, doing research, making and sustaining friendships,
collaborating on group projects, expressing themselves via artistic works, learning
computer programming, and exchanging social support—as they also might to online–at
the other. It is unclear that people are not using the Internet to do things that they would
not otherwise do. While Young (1999) notes that the Internet facilitates some aspects of
these behaviors, particularly sexual ones, in a less detectable, less stigmatizing, and more
convenient way than non-digital analogues provide, she also notes that people prone to
cybersexual addiction experience offline sexual addiction. There is no evidence that
these behaviors are novel in the networked environment and that equal amounts of time
would not be “wasted” in parallel, non-networked specific activities. It is not clear that
the doing of communication is what is really sought, enjoyed, or abused either by
talkaholics or Internet addicts, rather than the nature of the activity—functional or
dysfunctional—that it facilitates.

Second, it is probably false and misleading to define a behavior as addiction based
on symptomatology from non-comparable behaviors. What (mediated) communication
addiction shares with substance addiction has been derived through definitional
appropriation, not by the inherent properties of the activity itself. Indeed, much of the
evidence that the Internet is addictive has come from a wholesale importation of
dependency and withdrawal criteria from narcotic addiction diagnosis strategies;
according to Griffiths (1998, p. 62) in reference to Internet addiction, “The way of
determining whether nonchemical (i.e. behavioral) addictions are addictive in a
nonmetaphorical sense is to compare them against clinical criteria for other established
drug-ingested addictions.”

Such an approach does not offer an intuitive or a formal theoretical explanation of
the addiction mechanism. Only most recently have researchers speculated on the
properties of the Internet that may facilitate its strong attraction. For example, the ACE
model—Anonymity, Convenience, and Escape (Young, 1999)—is an informal beginning
to a quasitheoretical explanation of the gratification of cybersex, yet such an explanation
has yet to receive the kind of confirmation that testing would offer (such as attempted
regarding online social support; see Walther & Boyd, 2002). Nor does it explain why
these dimensions would not appeal to everyone to whom these facilitating conditions
pertain. In contrast, the question of whether “addicts are using the Internet” (King, 1996)
suggests an interaction explanation between Internet properties and personality factors,
and begins to approach a more comprehensive explanation, that also remains to be

Communication is not a substance, however, and defining a communication or
social activity as addiction, because an aspect of its statistically non-normative use may
resemble the trappings of narcotic dependency in some respects, is not necessarily
warranted. Doing so could lead to fallacious interpretations of any number of highly
functional yet frequent activities, even such as talking a lot. Users seek the direct effects
of drug use, and the attractions to gambling are quite clear. Communicating in various
different ways and looking at information cannot be shown to have the same etiological
or psychological properties. Moreover, while some people may exhibit signs of addiction
in relation to their Internet use, if the Internet is addictive like drugs it must be addictive
to anybody who uses it frequently, which no one contends it is.

Third, scaling and measurement procedures to detect Internet Addiction in the
general population are weaker than even those measuring attitudes toward verbal
behavior. Among those reviewed by Griffiths (1998), most scalings of Internet Addiction
have been tested on self-selected samples, in most cases responding to recruitment for
Internet-addicted profiles. It is dangerous to devise a scale to measure a syndrome that
may occur in a general population on the basis of extreme scores, from a self-selected
sample. One would expect test/retest reliability to be extremely important when
examining subjects whose scores were extreme and could regress toward the mean,
especially in light of Roberts, Smith, and Pollack’s (1996) research showing that on-line
chat activity is phasic, with an obsessive levels (enchantment) followed by a sharp
decline (disillusionment) and then by a more normal level (homeostasis). Overall, reports
of scale reliability are scarce, as are examinations of items for discriminate and predictive
validity. The measures may be measuring themselves, their only correspondence in some
cases being to time spent online which is not, in and of itself, an indicator of
dysfunctional rather than functional activity.

Fourth, it is not clear that face-to-face behavior and unmediated relationships are
by definition healthier or more natural than mediated relationships, yet the emerging
literature suggests that online activity conflicts with “real life” activities which makes
heavy Internet usage problematic. Even in Cooper, Scherer, Boies, and Gordon’s (1999)
rigorous study on sexual behavior via the Internet, they acknowledged that there are at
least two conceptualizations of engaging in cybersex or browsing pornography online:
healthy “sexual exploration or pathological expression.” Yet these researchers, like
others who are concerned with “cybersexual addiction” (e.g. Young, 1999), have not
apparently examined directly the extent to which such activity replaces time and effort
spent in other conventionally un-sanctioned sexual activities such as prostitution,
masturbation, or pornography consumption, nor whether such users are any better or
worse off using the Internet than using non-electronic means. After all, at least “cybersex
is safe sex,” reminds Benedikt (1995). Shrewd students of mine have speculated that the
WELL, made famous by Rheingold (1993) as the Bay Area bulletin board that became
popular in the 1980s, was indeed a safer forum for community maintenance than San
Francisco bathhouses had become during that point in time.

Fifth, the Internet is not a bad place to spend time. While it is no utopia, there are
real people, sharing real feelings (Rheingold, 1993). Even the most infamous of Internet
activities, on closer examination, may be rather innocuous. In Roberts and Parks’ (1998)
study of gender-switching on the Internet, they found that most people who had presented
a gender alternative to their own did so in the context of a role-playing game (it would be
difficult to play the role of Captain Kirk without presenting male), rather than for sexual
escapades. Furthermore, they found that most people found gender switching difficult
and uncomfortable. In other research Parks and colleagues (Parks & Floyd, 1996; Parks
& Roberts, 1998) have presented data suggesting that the newsgroups and MOOs serve as
public spaces like so many offline, for people to meet and form friendships, nothing more
or less. These friendships are no less valuable on many dimensions than face-to-face
ones, and a significant number of them friendships move from virtual to physical
acquaintance, as well. In a widely-noted recent study linking Internet use to depression,
Kraut et al. (1998) speculated that the creation of virtual friendships and social support
networks online substituted “weak link” surrogates for “strong link,” face-to-face
connections; yet their research does not support their argument. Not only did they fail to
assess the strength of friendship relations along the lines of Parks and colleagues, but no
deleterious effects were found in direct tests of the level of social support achieved by
Internet users.

Alternately, the Internet, and the specific activities and relations it may foster,
may offer exceedingly beneficial substitutes for some people in some circumstances. For
the persons with “low self-esteem, a severely distorted body image, untreated sexual
dysfunction” who may not be able to manage a physical relationship and is attracted to
cybersex (Young, 1999), for the only hemophiliac in a small rural town in Ohio whose
friends offer bad advice or patronize yet who can find others with similar concerns online
(Scheerhorn, Warisse, & McNeilis, 1995), for the lonely, who are apt to exhibit
dysfunctional face-to-face communication confirming their self-fulfilling prophecy of
loneliness (Bell & Daly, 1985; Prisbell, 1989; Spitzberg & Canary, 1985), for the highly
physically attractive junior executive whose male co-workers look at her in the chest
instead of in the eye, and for the college student who would rather discuss
postmodernism than drink a lot with his dormitory mates, the face-to-face realm may
offer little reward at best and psychic trauma at worst. For many, and the possibility of
excessively rewarding social relations through online interaction should not be
challenged. None of this is to say that those who self-identify as having problems in
conjunction with their Internet use should be dismissed, either, and clinical intervention
in these cases should not be withheld. But it may not be unwise to suggest that in some
cases attention should be focused on the sources of maladjustment that led them to the
Net, rather than on the Net itself.