In 1997, when connecting to the internet still involved a lot of whirring and beeping, a study in Psychological Reports noted that “while individual cases of problems from excessive computer usage are common,” using the term “addiction” to describe them would be “premature.”
But psychologists were already on guard. The author observed in the same study that internet use interfered with the daily lives of most of the 563 surveyed users and, in some, led to problems “similar to those found in addictions.”
Today, while the idea that “internet addiction” is a clinical condition remains controversial — it’s still not an official diagnosis — we’ve learned quite a bit more about what it might mean. At the same time, it’s become increasingly clear that in some ways, it may be uniquely difficult to treat.
“There’s something different, and more complicated, about Internet addiction,” Maria Konnikova writes, in new essay on the topic for the New Yorker. “Unlike gambling… it’s more difficult to pin down a quantifiable, negative effect of Internet use.” And it’s hard to treat a disorder when experts can’t even agree on what it is, or whether it exists.
There’s also an important line between maladaptive internet use, which may be problematic (e.g., “Where did the afternoon go?”), and pathological internet use, which is much rarer, and marked by serious disruptions to health and life (e.g., “I haven’t slept in days”).
“The truth is, we don’t know what’s normal,” Mark Potenza, an addiction specialist at Yale, told the New Yorker. “It’s not like alcohol where we have healthy amounts that we can recommend to people.” Or, as Konnikova puts it: “Just because you’re online all day doesn’t mean you’re an addict.”
But if you are an internet addict — or, diagnosable condition aside, if your internet usage is truly harmful — it’s hard to treat in the way you might treat more established addictions, like gambling. Psychologists often address such addictions, in part, by helping a patient avoid potential triggers: the places where the behaviour takes place, the people who typically do it with you.
With the internet, though, that’s almost impossible. All addictions are difficult to overcome. But with internet addiction, it’s hard to even know how to proceed, how to apply what works with other more-studied conditions to this very modern malady.
“Computers and virtual connections have become an integral part of daily life,” Konnikova writes. “You can’t just pull the plug and expect to function.”
In other words, there’s no perfect way to moderate the usage of something as ubiquitous as the internet — and that’s something even people who don’t think “internet addiction,” per se, is a thing, would agree on. But imagine, Konnikova suggests, the internet equivalent of a “virtual bottle that automatically clamps shut when you’ve had too much to drink or a casino that turns off its lights as you move into dangerous territory.”
Therapists, perhaps, will be able to work with clients to customise apps like SelfControl, which blocks access to certain websites, and StrictWorkflow, which limits users’ breaks from essential sites. “As is so often the case,” Konnikova writes, “technology may end up being both the problem and the answer.”
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