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Virginia Heffernan on Internet Addiction

Virginia Heffernan on Internet AddictionI’ve been saying it for as long as it’s been around — “Internet addiction” is an unhealthy focus and fascination on the technology, as though it caused people to enjoy spending time interacting with it. If people are using the Internet to socialize — on Facebook, Twitter, etc. — how can we turn around and characterize that as a bad thing? Would we engage in the same negative characterization if we were referring to someone who simply did this over the telephone? Or face-to-face?

Of course not. And that’s the disconnect that happens when psychologists throw out these not-well-thought-out terms to describe something they are concerned about. They turn it into a dysfunction through inadequate and poorly theorized labels, that then get picked up by others and the mainstream media, and completely blown out of proportion.

So it was with a twinge of joy and a kick of my heels that I read Virginia Heffernan’s piece full of common sense this morning over at The New York Times, describing the case of Gabriela, “a professed Internet addict, [and] a 20-year-old college student in New York.”

But before we get to Gabriela, Ms. Heffernan talked to Dr. Kimberly Young, the inventor of the term “Internet addiction:”

Dr. Young told me she believes the Internet is addictive in part because it “allows us to create new personalities and use them to fulfill unmet psychological needs” — which sounds worrying except that art, entertainment and communications systems are designed explicitly to permit self-exploration and satisfy psychological needs.

Now, keep in mind that journalists quote experts in any way they see fit, and often take a single snippet of a sentence — as done here — to make the person sound a certain way to help them forward their own point. Out of the entire interview with Dr. Young, that’s the only quote the reporter uses. I’m all for making your point, but not at the expense of making an expert sound like she doesn’t believe it’s more complicated than it is (which Dr. Young does understand).

Now back to Gabriela and her story… here’s how this 20-year-old is interacting with the Internet today:

In e-mail, Gabriela struck a note between irony and concern as she described her symptoms. She told me she keeps an extremely late bedtime, sometimes 4 a.m., because she’s up noodling around online.

She then described a typical surfing session: “I’ll be on Facebook and see a status update of song lyrics, and I’ll Google them and find the band name, that I will subsequently Wikipedia and discover that the lead singer is interesting and briefly look at his Twitter and try his music on Grooveshark” — a music search engine and streaming service — “while looking at pictures of him on Tumblr” — the multimedia microblogging platform — “that will lead me to a meme I’ve never heard of that I’ll explore until I find hilarious photos I will subsequently share with friends of mine on Facebook.” Gabriela, who sometimes dresses in the futuristic Victoriana known as steampunk, also loves Webcomics, a site for graphic novels and comic books, and Neopets, a game that lets players care for virtual pets.

She indeed sleeps with her laptop in her bed, “partly so I can have my iTunes play my Sleep playlist.”

This is a very familiar story to anyone who’s talked to young adults and teens to understand how they use the Internet. It’s due in part to the lack of any guideposts on the Internet — symbols that helps us stay grounded, in our own reality and timeline. Whereas a roadway will have mile markers and exit signs to help mark your progress along your route, the Internet lacks all such symbols.

We all spend a lot of time online because time loses meaning and context when in a limitless, virtual environment. This is not a surprising behavior — this is exactly the behavior psychologists would predict in such an environment.

Is this the picture of a typical “Internet addict.” I don’t know, but what I do know that the behaviors Gabriela describe here can be seen in many different lights. And while Ms. Heffernan has used this specific example to suggest the label is absurd on the face of it, it’s more complex than that.

Some small group of people do indeed have a problem with the issue of using the Internet to fill a void in their lives, at the expense of their actual, face-to-face lives. Kids who drop out of college to play WoW endlessly, adults who spend all night exploring porn online, only to drag themselves to work the next morning in a barely-functioning state. But this isn’t “Internet addiction” — because words should have meaning (just like your Facebook “friends” aren’t always or even mostly your friends). And it can still be treated even if we don’t give it that pejorative label.

I was glad to see Ms. Heffernan’s views presented articulately in The New York Times. Maybe more people will react with a degree of skepticism when they hear of this problem in the future.

Read the full article: Miss G.: A Case of Internet Addiction

Virginia Heffernan on Internet Addiction

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Virginia Heffernan on Internet Addiction. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 10 Apr 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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