Doctors have no problem treating disorders that don’t officially exist, including Internet addiction, one of those non-existent disorders that nonetheless actually has clinics devoted to its “treatment.”
“But Dr. Grohol,” you might protest, “How can you say that? There’s been years worth of research showing Internet disorder does exist!”
And usually, I’d be on-board with you if that research actually was good research — well-designed, without circular-logic reasoning and sampling issues. But Internet addiction is a perfect example of a fad disorder brought about by its connection to the world’s most popular communications and social network, the Internet. And by an inherent misunderstanding of its use by adults (but not by the generations of children, teens, and young adults now growing up with it as a standard part of their communications repertoire).
But as I’ve been pointing out since its inception in 1996, “Internet addiction” has poor evidence because most of the research done into it has been equally as poor. And now Byun and his colleagues (2008) have shown that to be true in a meta-analysis of research done on “Internet addiction” since 1996:
The analysis showed that previous studies have utilized inconsistent criteria to define Internet addicts, applied recruiting methods that may cause serious sampling bias, and examined data using primarily exploratory rather than confirmatory data analysis techniques to investigate the degree of association rather than causal relationships among variables.
Sound familiar? Indeed, the lack of agreement of a definition of the disorder (or a single, reliable test to measure it, as the researchers point out) combined with serious sampling issues in virtually every study conducted means we have little consensus about whether such a thing even exists.
But fear not, we wouldn’t want those Internet addiction clinics to go under or researchers who’ve staked a significant part of their careers on this “disorder” to suddenly find their pat university job at risk…
The new study offers suggestions for future research:
We found that previous studies on Internet addiction were primarily concerned with the antecedents of Internet addiction and with identifying features in participants that made an individual more susceptible to becoming an Internet addict.
However, the development of the concept, due to its complex nature, requires more systematic empirical and theory-based academic research to arrive at a more standardized approach to measurement. The use of representative samples and data collection methods that minimize sampling bias is highly recommended. Further, implementation of analyses methods that can test causal relationships, rather than merely examining the degree of associations, are recommended so that antecedents and consequences of Internet addiction can be clearly differentiated.
What’s happening today and some people’s reaction to the Internet is neither new nor unique — it’s as old as technology itself (starting with the printing press). It’s an overreaction to suggest that the Internet is somehow different than what’s come before, as history tells us otherwise. Every new technology unleashed on society from the 1800s on was thought to be the end of civilized society — the paperback book, the telephone, the automobile, the motion picture, television, and finally video games. And now, the Internet is the latest in a long line of demons society would like to blame for some of its problems.
I don’t deny that some small subset of people have behavioral problems with learning how to integrate using parts of the Internet into their everyday lives. But people have similar problems with work, the television, and many other things in life, and we can still treat them without demonizing (and labeling) the conduit that brings a person new entertainment, information, or enjoyment.
Byun, S., et al. (2008). Internet Addiction: Metasynthesis of 1996–2006 Quantitative Research. Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 12, 1-5.