The APA this year was a little light on Internet-related presentations and research. One poster paper that caught my eye was, “Factors May Predict the Severity of Symptoms Related to the Maladaptive Use of the Internet.” Gawd, what a gobbleygook mouthful!
Before getting into this paper’s findings, however, you need to take a quick look at Beard and Wolf’s Criteria for Maladaptive Internet Use. Before you click on the link, though, try this — substitute the words “friendship or friends” for the words “the Internet” in the first 5 bullet points. Also note that the very last criteria listed — the “escape” criteria — could be applied to anyone who has ever talked to a friend in real life about problems at home or work, anyone who exercises to reduce stress and “escape” from life’s problems, or anyone who basically uses any healthy coping mechanism to “take a break” from dealing with the problems every person faces every day. In other words, it is so broadly defined as to be meaningless.
So the authors — Keith Beard, David Trumpower and Kristen Fulton from Marshall University — found that “Aspects of the Internet that involve interacting with others, finding people you are interested in interacting with, and becoming friends with these online people could perpetuate maladaptive Internet use.” In other words, if you make friends online, you could find yourself spending more time with those friends and ignoring other friends, family, hobbies or work in RL because of your new social contacts.
Only because the Internet is the intervening technological factor are researchers singling it out for this negative attention. You can have all the unhealthy friendships, hobbies or relationships you want in real life, including television, talking on the phone, or spending far too much time and attention on sports, and nobody will think twice about labeling you. But do it online and some diagnosis-happy psychologists will find a way to label you, treat you, and then send you on your way, “cured” of your need for social contact online!
Shapira et al.’s proposed diagnostic criteria, published in 2003, are even worse. The authors there suggested only two significantly unique criteria for the disorder:
A. Maladaptive preoccupation with internet use, as
indicated by at least one of the following.
- Preoccupations with use of the internet that are
experienced as irresistible.
- Excessive use of the internet for periods of time
longer than planned.
(Criteria B. and C. are common to many, many mental disorders and are therefore neither unique or interesting to our discussion.)
Irresistible, eh? I always thought the word “irresistible” was a positive, a way to describe a feeling that one wants, not a feeling that one avoids. I find some of things I do in my everyday life as “irresistible,” so I have a somewhat difficult time understanding this criteria for a proposed mental diagnosis.
As to the second criteria, one echoed in Beard and Wolf’s criteria, I find it more intriguing. I mean, who hasn’t spent longer online than one originally intended?? I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who hasn’t done that. But the point here, I suppose, is not that everyone’s done this in their time online, but that you do it frequently. How frequently? None of the criteria say, because nobody knows. But in the mushy language of behavior diagnostic, I suppose it wouldn’t be going too much out on a limb to suggest that the words, “more often than not,” would clarify the situation.
Then I think about my everyday life…
When I go to run errands, I often find myself spending more time than I had planned in doing so. When I go out on a date with my wife and friends, sometimes I find I spend more time in their company than I had planned. When I go to work on a computer system, I often find myself spending far more time than I had intended. And when I sit down to watch TV, read a book, or even talk on the telephone, I often find myself going outside of my intended allowance of time for each of these activities. A one-day house project turns into a 2-week house project.
In talking with friends and colleagues, I don’t seem to be alone in this feeling. Everything we do in life seems to take more time, attention, and energy than most of us planned for. So is it really all that surprising that going online is the exception to this rule?
Needless to say, I found little new evidence supporting “Internet addiction disorder” at the APA’s annual meeting this year. What I did find was more professionals again making logical fallacies about Internet use and what people are doing online.
Unfortunately, the authors of the paper didn’t actually show up at their own poster session, so there was nobody to talk to about this paper. And no copies of the paper to take with you…