Is Internet Addiction Real?

The recent murder of a mother in China, by her 16-year-old daughter, is suspected to be retribution for being forced to go to one of the country’s notorious internet addiction boot camps. Chen Xinran (not her real name) had been abducted after leaving work – she had dropped out of school – and taken to one of China’s many military-style boot camps, from which she escaped four months later. Last month, she tied her mother to a chair, starved her for a week, and tried to force a relative to give her money in exchange for releasing her. This failed and Chen eventually phoned for an ambulance when her mother was dying.

China was the first country to label internet addiction as a clinical disorder, with health officials there dividing it into five categories of addiction: online games, social networking, online shopping, online pornography and (vaguely) internet information.

The question has to be asked though: is it really a clinical disorder in its own right or a symptom of other social, behavioral or psychological disorders?

Recognizing Addictions

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals in the USA, does not yet include internet addiction as a clinical disorder. This is because mental health experts have not been able to agree whether excessive internet usage is an actual addictive disorder or not.

In the fifth edition of the DSM, released in 2013, Internet Gaming Disorder was identified as a condition needing further clinical research before it might be considered for inclusion in the main book as a formal disorder. General internet usage, online shopping, internet gambling and social media were not included.

The term “excessive” is also up for discussion as it only applies to internet usage outside of work and study time. Dr. Kimberly Young, founder of the Center for Internet Addiction in the USA, says that it’s not as much about hours as it is about the effects of being online for prolonged periods of time. The Center has eight criteria, plus other symptoms, by which it identifies addiction and uses specialized Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Internet Addiction (CBT-IA), Dr. Young’s empirical therapy model.

Preoccupation with internet games, online gambling, online pornography and the constant need to check for emails, posts and messages can result in significant distress for the user and his/her family. With the internet, we’re always “on” and many feel pressured to read and respond to everything. As with alcohol, drug and gambling addictions, the distress manifests in poor performance at school or work, social disconnection, relationship breakdown, moodiness, irrational thinking and financial problems.

It is horrifying to think that gamers will lock themselves into a room, surrounded by junk food and energy drinks, take stimulants and wear diapers so that they can be involved in a game for up to 17 hours non-stop. Any adult who chooses to sit in his/her own bodily excretions, really needs help. Game developers need to play their part, though, and design software that, at a minimum, allows for pause-and-play for toilet breaks, without the loss of points or rewards.

recognizing internet addiction

The Causes of Internet Addiction

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did the internet come along and turn the everyday Joe into a cyber junkie, or did something push Joe into retreating to the internet to cope with other pressures?

It has become the new normal that children are being given technology devices at younger ages, but what isn’t normal is that their parents are spending less time with them and the devices are becoming nannies, play mates and teachers. Even when children are with their parents either in the same room or out at a restaurant, for example, it’s becoming more and more common to see each adult and child holding their own device, eyes down, not communicating with each other.

Children tend to learn technology faster than parents and some are becoming teachers to their parents. This may affect child/parent interactions as they realize that parents aren’t necessarily the font of all wisdom. They’re relying on the internet for information rather than speaking to their parents and that information isn’t always correct or honest.

Then there are pressures at school where children and adolescents can’t fit in or are bullied or are under-performers and they turn to the internet to escape into a non-judgmental world. This is being seen most significantly in Japan where there are currently 541,000 known “hikikomori” (people aged 15-39 who have not left their homes or interacted with others in more than six months) who spend most of their time in their bedrooms, reading comics, watching TV and playing online games.

Hikikomori refuse to go to school or work and prefer self-isolation. The phenomenon is also being seen in adults who have been laid off work or have been unable to find work. Societal pressures to perform well at school and in business are high in Japan but it could be argued that hikikomori may also suffer from agoraphobia or one of the autism spectrum disorders or other behavioral disorders.

social media addiction

Finding Balance

There needs to be a middle ground in all aspects of life in order to find balance and happiness.

Whether Chen Xinran killed her mother because she was sent to a boot camp or had an underlying pathology, the fact remains that something was not done to address Chen’s problems when they first manifested.

Maybe Japanese societal norms and mores need to change in order to decrease the prevalence of hikikomori.

Worldwide, though, parents need to become more involved in the lives of their children and teach balance and family values. As a parent, it is hard to say no sometimes – it is easier, after all, to buckle under pressure sometimes and to say yes just to preserve peace in the home. If there’s any chance of putting a stop to internet addiction, it has to start with teaching people from an early age that there are right and wrong times and places for everything, including internet-based activities.

To quote Ellen DeGeneres: “My point is, life is about balance. The good and the bad. The highs and the lows. The pina and the colada.”

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