Can Internet Become an Addiction?

A couple weeks ago I read a terrifying news story reading “A South Korean couple who were addicted to the internet let their three-month-old baby starve to death while raising a virtual daughter online, police said.” It was difficult to believe what I read, however on retrospect I realized that a shift on how I look at Internet addiction can make this story believable (also the fact that it was on BBC). Sad events like this one happen to children of people who are addicted to narcotics or alcohol. Nevertheless, we tend to think of Internet addiction as a milder and much less serious type of addiction because it is easier to control the urges and it is less destructive. But is it really? Let’s compare alcoholism to Internet addiction. Mayoclinic offers the following criteria to diagnose alcoholism:

1.    Tolerance, indicated by an increase in the amount of alcohol you need to feel intoxicated. As alcoholism progresses, the amount leading to intoxication can also decrease as a result of damage to your liver or central nervous system.
2.    Withdrawal symptoms when you cut down or stop using alcohol. These signs and symptoms include tremors, insomnia, nausea and anxiety. You may drink more alcohol in order to avoid those symptoms.
3.    Drinking more alcohol or drinking over a longer period of time than you intended.
4.    Persistently having a desire to cut down on your alcohol intake or making unsuccessful attempts to do so.
5.    Spending a great deal of time obtaining, using, or recovering from alcohol use.
6.    Giving up important social, occupational or recreational activities.
7.    Continuing to use alcohol even though you know it’s causing physical and psychological problems.

Except the first one, the remaining six criteria apply to the symptoms of Internet addiction, speculatively, with which many of us are struggling. While the case of parents neglecting their baby because of Internet addiction is an extreme one, the accumulative effects of Internet addiction, on many of us, might be more destructive then we think. Long hours of sitting in front of the screen and floating on the Internet cloud have negative effects on our brain, psychology, physiology, socialization and apparently the ones who depend on us. With any addiction, the first step towards improvement is to admit the addiction. The critical point here is that Internet addiction is not categorized as a serious addiction. Internet addiction is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and there are very few therapy and prevention programs. Therefore even admitting the addiction may not mean a lot

Addiction to the information and entertainment technologies presents itself in different forms. Internet addiction is only one branch of it, other branches including addiction to computer and console games, mobile devices, traditionally, to TV, and even to cell phones and MP3 players. All of these addictions relate to our imbalanced and obsessive urge to be constantly engaged, connected and to be in interaction. The daily lives of individuals who suffer from these addictions are characterized by lack of rest, social interaction and contemplative practices.

I think, the major problem is that technology addiction is underestimated and sometimes even misjudged. From a certain perspective, human cognition and brain has unlimited flexibility and adaptive capacity: Using technology is a natural ability given to us. Unfortunately, this is not the case. We did not evolve to use Internet and play video games. The reward mechanisms that tell us what is right to do and avoidance mechanisms letting us know about the dangers are useless in this new world. The reward mechanisms are telling us to do the wrong things (play computer games for long hours etc.) and avoidance mechanisms scare us about not doing the things the remaining of the herd does (marginilization due to not using technology). In this sense our inherent ways of judging what is good and what is bad are not as effective. I do not have a solution to present. I just believe that we need to approach disorders with our use of technology in a more cautious way.

Firat Soylu is a PhD candidate pursuing a dual major degree in Instructional Systems Technology and Cognitive Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.