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Is ‘Internet addiction’ for real?

Whether there is a psychological disorder that could be called (for lack of a better term) “Internet addiction” is a hotly debated question in the medical community.

In Monday’s Boston Globe, we get yet another exploration of the topic by reporter Elizabeth Cooney. Her article doesn’t come to any conclusion, but it does raise the usual questions about this perplexing and yet-unresolved issue.

“In a world where always being connected seems as vital as breathing, how much is too much?” Cooney asks. “And does excessive Internet use equal addiction?”

One of the experts she quotes doesn’t like the addiction label, preferring instead the more understated term “problematic use of electronic media”:

“A person who is hooked on a barbiturate, taking tons and tons of it every day, and is suddenly cut off from the supply will go into a physiological withdrawal, which could kill him and often does,’’ said [Ronald] Pies, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine. “I have yet to be convinced that a teenager who sits in his room using the Internet for five, six, seven hours a day, as troubled as he or she may be, has a condition that can reasonably be compared to barbiturate addiction. Which is not to say there aren’t people with a severe, pathological use of electronic media.”

The evidence seems to be pointing in the direction of some kind of pathology. Reports Cooney:

[T]here have been a small number of reported deaths attributed to Internet addiction in Asia, where much of the academic research into the issue has focused and where many of the treatment centers are located. A 28-year-old Korean man died after not eating or sleeping during 50 hours of nonstop gaming, according to a commentary published last month in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine. A companion article said attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in girls and hostility in boys can predispose children to later Internet addiction, which they estimate affects 4 percent of children in Korea and 15 percent in China. A separate Stanford telephone survey of US adults found that 1 in 8 people consider themselves addicted.

“Internet addiction” is not in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the psychiatrist’s “bible” of diagnoses), but its inclusion is being considered for the next edition.

Should it be? 

(If you want to determine if you’re too obsessed with the Internet, the Globe article includes a “11 Signs of Internet Addiction” questionnaire, developed by the Seattle-based ReSTART center for Internet addiction.) 

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