COMPUTER AND CYBERSPACE ADDICTION

by John Suler, Ph.D.

A heated debate is rising among psychologists. With the explosion of excitement about the internet, some people seem to be a bit too excited. Some people spend way too much time there. Is this yet ANOTHER type of addiction that has invaded the human psyche?

Psychologists are not even sure yet what to call this phenomenon. Some label it an "Internet Addiction Disorder." But many people are addicted to their computers long before the internet enters their lives. Some people are extremely attached to their computer and don't even care about the internet. Perhaps we should call the phenomenon a "Computer Addiction." Also, let's not forget the very powerful, but now seemingly mundane and almost accepted addiction that some people develop to video games. Video games are computers too... very single-minded computers, but computers nevertheless. Or how about telephones? People get addicted to those too, and not just the sex lines. Like computers, telephones are a technologically enhanced form of communication and may fall into the category of "computer mediated communication" (aka, CMC) - as the researchers are dubbing internet activities. In the not too distant future, computer, telephone, and video technology may very well merge into one, perhaps highly addictive, beast.

Perhaps, on a broad level, it makes sense to talk about a "Cyberspace Addiction" - an addiction to virtual realms of experience created through computer engineering. Within this broad category, there may be subtypes with distinct differences. A teenager who plays hooky from school in order to master the next level of Donkey Kong may be a very different person than the middle aged housewife who spends $500 a month in AOL chat rooms - who in turn may be very different from the businessman who can't tear himself away from his finance programs and continuous internet access to stock quotes. Some cyberspace addictions are game and competition oriented, some fulfill more social needs, some simply may be an extension of workaholicism. Then again, these differences may be superficial.

Not many people are waving their fingers and fists in the air about video and work addictions. Not many newspaper articles are written about these topics either. They are passé issues. The fact that the media is turning so much attention to cyberspace and internet addictions may simply reflect the fact that this is a new and hot topic. It may also indicate some anxiety among people who really don't know what the internet is, even though everyone is talking about it. Ignorance tends to breed fear and the need to devalue.

Nevertheless, some people are definitely hurting themselves by their addiction to computers and cyberspace. When people lose their jobs, or flunk out of school, or are divorced by their spouses because they cannot resist devoting all of their time to virtual lands, they are pathologically addicted. These extreme cases are clear cut. But as in all addictions, the problem is where to draw the line between "normal" enthusiasm and "abnormal" preoccupation.

"Addictions" - defined very loosely - can be healthy, unhealthy, or a mixture of both. If you are fascinated by a hobby, feel devoted to it, would like to spend as much time as possible pursuing it - this could be an outlet for learning, creativity, and self-expression. Even in some unhealthy addictions you can find these positive features embedded within (and thus maintaining) the problem. But in truly pathological addictions, the scale has tipped. The bad outweighs the good, resulting in serious disturbances in one's ability to function in the "real" world. Almost anything could be the target of a pathological addiction - drugs, eating, exercising, gambling, sex, spending, working, etc. You name it, someone out there is obsessed with it. Looking at it from a clinical perspective, these pathological addictions usually have their origin early in a person's life, where they can be traced to significant deprivations and conflicts. They may be an attempt to control depression and anxiety, and may reflect deep insecurities and feelings of inner emptiness.

As yet, there is no official psychological or psychiatric diagnosis of an "Internet" or "Computer" addiction. The most recent (4th) edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (aka, DSM-IV) - which sets the standards for classifying types of mental illness - does not include any such category. It remains to be seen whether this type of addiction will someday be included in the manual. As is true of any official diagnosis, an "Internet Addiction Disorder" or any similarly proposed diagnosis must withstand the weight of extensive research. It must meet two basic criteria. Is there a consistent, reliably diagnosed set of symptoms that constitutes this disorder? Does the diagnosis correlate with anything - are there similar elements in the histories, personalities, and future prognosis of people who are so diagnosed. If not, "where's the beef?" It's simply a label with no external validity.

Continued

11/23/97

John Suler, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at Rider University and a practicing clinical psychologist. He has published on psychotherapy, mental imagery, and eastern philosophy. He currently maintains several web sites.

 

Please help support our SelfhelpMagazine mission
so that we may continue serving you.
Choose your
support amount here:  
 

Back