Around the world, Internet-addiction treatment centers are setting up shop. But so far, it's not clear they can do anything to help.
The Internet's addictive quality is obvious enough that ever since Americans first heard the singing tone of a dial-up modem, people have worried that their sons, daughters, husbands, and wives were at risk of becoming Internet addicts.
In December of 1995, Newsweek ran a story called "They Log On but They Can't Log Off" (Nexis subscription required). It began ominously:
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY ABOUT someone who spent 18 hours a day online? Not a research scientist, mind you, but a stay-at-home mom from Texas. What if she lied to her husband about the monthly phone bills, as high as $8400, she was racking up in her marathon chat sessions -- then enlisted a computer hacker to wangle her free access when money ran low? What if you heard that her marriage dissolved and she became estranged from her children as she obsessively tapped away, chewing the fiber-optic fat with her online pals? You might have a few choice words, but Glenda, 43, calls herself an addict. She worries about what's going to happen as more Americans encounter the Internet. "I believe it could be really bad and really dangerous for this country."
But not everyone was so convinced. "Give me a break," said John Robards of the Boston Computer Society. "We're not talking about alcohol or drug abuse. I understand people are mentally weak and can form a so-called addiction, but at the same time, people are making an excuse for not having a life."
The world -- and particularly the world of the Internet -- has changed a lot since 1995. But the question of whether someone can be addicted, in the clinical sense of the word, to the Internet has stayed basically the same. There is an ongoing debate about whether Internet addiction should be included in the DSM-5 when it comes out in May of 2013.
Despite there being no consensus among clinical psychiatrists whether Internet addiction is a real thing, a cottage industry of treatment centers has sprung up (subscription required) to help those with a problem. In South Korea, the government has established more than 140 Internet addiction counseling centers and has instituted treatment programs at nearly 100 hospitals. In China, young men can attend militaristic boot-camps that purport to cure addiction at a success rate of 70 percent for 10,000 yuan a month, nearly the amount an average Chinese family pulls in in a an entire year. In America, there are in-patient therapies, counseling, and 12-step programs.
A review of eight studies (subscription required) finds that they are plagued by an inability to consistently define Internet addiction, poor methodology (only one randomized controlled trial), and absent data. So that brings us back to square one, about where we were in 1995, just with way more Internet users and way more life happening primarily online.
The central problem with treatment for Internet addiction is that there is no standard for what Internet addiction is. Patients at these centers could be suffering from a range of problems -- anything from pathological gambling (which can certainly manifest itself online) to sleep disorders and depression. In this sense, for many people Internet addiction may be more of a symptom than a disorder in and of itself. If so, they may benefit more from treatment targeted not at their Internet use, but at whatever else is ailing them.