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Previously in Web Citations:

Mirror, Mirror

The Blair Witch Project and the Net's latest exercise in self-flattery. By Josh Ozersky

The Net's Next Vice

Online gambling is set to take off. Enter (who else?) the United States government. By Katie Bacon

The Great Divide

The Silicon Valley rich are very different from you and me. By Wen Stephenson

Sim City

The virtual partition of Jerusalem is a fait accompli. By Eric Manch

Politics Made Simple

A new political site aims for the GenX mind -- and shows us what the world does not need now. By Nicholas Confessore

Front Runners

Presidential campaigns are starting earlier and earlier. Here's how the field is shaping up for 2024. By Toby Lester

Menace to Society

The hype isn't the most annoying thing about the new Star Wars release. By Gina Hahn

See the complete Web Citations Index.

The Addiction Addiction
September 9, 1999

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Approximately eleven million people around the world are Internet addicts, according to a paper presented by Dr. David Greenfield at the 1999 meeting of the American Psychological Association last month. "Marriages are being disrupted, kids are getting into trouble, people are committing illegal acts, people are spending too much money. As someone who treats patients, I see it," Dr. Greenfield told the Associated Press. Greenfield also happens to run a clinic for treating "Internet addiction."

I've seen the "Internet addiction" story surface year after year. The survey Greenfield cites in support of his claims was conducted by posting a questionnaire on last year. ( also ran the recent AP story on Greenfield's presentation.) The survey asked such questions as whether the respondents had used the Internet to escape from their problems, tried unsuccessfully to cut back on Internet use, or found themselves preoccupied with the Internet when they were no longer at the computer. Of the 17,251 people who voluntarily responded to the survey, 990, or about 5.7 percent, answered "yes" to at least five out of ten questions. Since there are an estimated 200 million Internet users, Greenfield's study suggests that there are 11.4 million possible Internet addicts.

Is it really possible that 11.4 million people use the Internet in ways that damage their lives? Bold claims require strong evidence. It doesn't take an expert in research methodology to doubt the validity of a "five 'yes' anwers out of ten" technique, applied to a self-selected population, and with no control group. In fact, a little digging reveals that "Internet addiction" was first proposed as a parody of the trend toward treating compulsive behaviors as addictions.

The whole hoo-ha started in March, 1995, when a psychiatrist by the name of Ivan Goldberg sent out a message claiming to have established the existence of a new disorder that should be added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the authoritative text on what mental ailments are diagnosable (and the guide to which treatments qualify for insurance coverage). Borrowing language used to describe compulsive gambling as an addiction, Dr. Goldberg listed a set of symptoms for "Internet addiction." When he started receiving e-mail from people who claimed to be suffering from the disorder, Goldberg started a tongue-in-cheek online support group for Internet addicts. Although he does believe that some yet-undiscovered percentage of the online population suffers from what he now calls "pathological Internet use disorder" (as opposed to "addiction"), Goldberg told a writer for The New Yorker in 1997 that "to medicalize every behavior by putting it into psychiatric nomenclature is ridiculous. If you expand the concept of addiction to include everything people can overdo, then you must talk about people being addicted to books, addicted to jogging, addicted to other people."

Although Goldberg's original message was a hoax, Dr. Kimberly Young, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, soon opened her Center for On-Line Addiction. Dr. Young's paper, "Internet Addiction: The Emergence of a New Clinical Disorder" (presented to the American Psychological Association in 1996), was based on the responses to an eight-item questionnaire answered by 596 people whom she recruited through online and offline advertisements. She concluded that 396 of the respondents were "dependent Internet users."

Joseph B. Walther, an associate professor of communication and information technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, reacted to Greenfield's recent APA presentation by making one of his own at the same conference. Dr. Walther's tongue-in-cheek presentation on "Communication Addiction Disorder" cited various published sources to bolster his claims that "some people just talk too much and can't control it, and they are using speech to do bad things." More seriously, Walther objects to the methodology of the Greenfield study. "The checklist in the reported research," he told me in recent e-mail correpondence, "includes items that have been shown to correlate statistically with greater Internet usage (although one could indicate 'yes' to five items but not use the Net very much), but have not been shown to predict any kind of dysfunction."

John Suler, a professor of psychology at Rider University, is another person who thinks about these issues. Suler maintains a site called The Psychology of Cyberspace, which includes a section on "Internet addiction," and I asked him what he thought of the APA presentations. "In my opinion," Suler replied, "the largest group of 'addicts' are ghosts. They exist only in the minds of our media and of some naive mental health professionals who want to lay claim to a new pathology. Where does 'addiction' end and 'passion' begin? The Internet is a marvelous milestone in the history of civilization. Some people will devote their lives to it. Was Einstein addicted to physics? Or Picasso to painting?"

I first wrote about "Internet addiction" in 1997, in response to a presentation about the subject that I found to be more balanced and less sensational than so many others I had seen. In "Is the Internet Addictive, or Are Addicts Using the Internet?" (December 1996), Storm King, president of the International Society for Mental Health Online, did what many of today's researchers clearly fail to do: he set out the methodological problems that must be overcome and acknowledged the complexities of attempting to attribute specific causes to human behavioral disorders. Anne Federwisch's 1997 article in NurseWeek/HealthWeek was another balanced treatment of the topic, covering the entire spectrum of the story, from the initial hoax to the real possibility that some people are using the Internet in ways that are harmful to themselves or others. People whose Internet use has damaged their lives ought to be helped, and there remains a need for carefully designed research.

I spend many hours a day online. But I make a living writing books and articles about the Internet, so it's hard to call my passion pathological. When I was a kid, "normal" twelve-year-old boys played basketball. I hid out in the library and read books. I've been addicted to reading ever since.

--Howard Rheingold

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More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Howard Rheingold is the author of nine books, including Tools for Thought (1984) and The Virtual Community (1993), both of which are found in their entirety at his Web site.

Illustration by Sage Stossel.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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