Are some people addicted to the fast expanding Internet? Mark Griffiths argues the case for research.
With the numbers of online computer users more than doubling over the past two years, it has been alleged that social pathologies are beginning to surface in cyberspace. On March 8 this year, The New York Times published an article entitled "The lure and addiction of life online'' in which Howard Shaffer - a leading authority on addictive behaviour - claimed a certain segment of the population can develop addictive behaviour in response to online stimulation. Of approximately 100 responses to a journalist's query regarding overuse of online services, 22 reported a "cocaine-line rush'' and 12 others reported that online chatting helped them to relax. Shaffer was quoted as saying: "Online service is not as reliable as cocaine or alcohol but in the contemporary world, it is a fairly reliable way of shifting consciousness.'' Although such press coverage may be described as somewhat sensationalist, the article raises interesting questions about the nature of addiction and whether there are really excessive computer users who could be categorised as "Net addicts''.
The Internet is currently undergoing mass expansion. A recent survey by Matrix Information and Directory Services reported that 28 million people were now using the Internet. In addition to this, a February issue of Business Week reported that there were ,000 World Wide Web sites and that the number was doubling every 53 days. Reliable demographic information about Internet users is limited but researches at the Georgia Institute of Technology conducted the first Web survey last year and reported that 94 per cent of users were male and that 56 per cent were aged between 21 and 30 years. Another survey by the Michigan Business School reported that Web users were educated (with over 70 per cent having at least a first degree) and affluent. Studies of the Internet, its users and their potential excesses should therefore be of psychological concern not least of all because of its sudden growth and heightened public awareness.
The article in The New York Times interested me greatly because for the past seven years I have been carrying out research into an area that I have subsequently called "technological addictions". My conceptualisation of technological addictions is that they are non-chemical (ie behavioural) additions which involve human-machine interaction. They can either be passive (eg television) or active (eg computer games) and they usually contain inducing and reinforcing features which may contribute to the promotion of addictive tendencies.
For many people, the idea that a person can become addicted to television or the Internet is intuitively nonsense because their concept of addiction usually involves the ingestion of a drug. However, there are now many authorities in the field of addictive behaviours who view a number of non-drug behaviours as potentially addictive. These include behaviours as diverse as gambling, overeating, sex, exercise and computer game playing. The way of determining whether technological addictions are addictive in a non metaphorical sense is to compare them against clinical criteria for other established addictions. This method of making behavioural excesses more clinically identifiable lies at the heart of whether activities like the Internet are addictive.
But if the Internet is addictive, what makes it addictive? Consider a few of the many true accounts that I collected on an academic addiction discussion group over the last few weeks since The New York Times article was published. All people have been given pseudonyms.
Dave: "I have tried to cut down. I get so angry when people tell me I spend too much time on the Internet. I sometimes feel guilty about my time on the Internet. I sometimes log on the net in the morning to steady my nerves. How about a support group for Internet addiction?" Belinda: "My past addiction to an online service lasted almost a year . . . I cancelled the service and felt a great sense of release and relief. For the most part I just lark around now but I am afraid that posting may draw me back into the obsession. I speak from the patient's view having spent a year in therapy for depression. The addiction is real but to what I can only guess - it certainly wasn't typing."
Gary: "Six months ago, Internet was installed here on campus. Not only did the students using the lab increase sharply, but they would spend their weekend in the lab. After eight hours when we started to close I would have to pull them away from the computers, some would even cry and become angry. It reminded me of getting between a junkie and their fix. We ended up disconnecting the talk and chat portion of the Internet because all the computers were being used for recreation rather than study. I have been telling people for months that the Internet is addictive.'' These accounts at least suggest that for some people the Internet may be addicting. However, not only do we have the problem in the different types of activity that people perform on the net (eg emailing, information browsing, file transferring, socialising, role-game playing etc) but the wide range of activities gives rise to problems defining the object of the addiction. For instance, is the object the process of typing, the medium of communication, aspects of its specific style (eg no face-to-face interaction), the information that can be obtained (eg pornography), the playing of fantasy-role games and/or talking to others in chat rooms or on Internet Relay Chat? It has also been argued by many that the Internet could easily be the focus of obsessive/compulsive behaviour. One thing that may intensify this focus are the vast resources on the Internet available to feed or fuel other addictions or compulsions. It could be that the net has become a vehicle used to "get a fix''. For example, to a sex addict, the Net could be a very dangerous (and addictive) medium.
Many people would argue that addictive tendencies reside within the individual (ie an "addictive personality'' of some kind). Although individual differences cannot be totally discounted, my own research into gaming addictions indicates the structural characteristics of the machine in question are also very important in the promotion of addictive tendencies. Structural characteristics can be defined as what manufacturers put into gaming machines to make them more inducing. For instance, such features common to both fruit machines and computer games include the event frequency (ie the speed at which the machine gives reward whether it be points or money), light and colour effects, sound effects, graphics, and skill/pseudo-skill buttons which enhance machine interactivity. These are integral features of all gaming machines which define alternative realities to the user and allow them feelings of immersion and anonymity - features which may be psychologically rewarding to such individuals. Such characteristics may also help explain why some people find the Internet so psychologically rewarding and why a minority appear to end up using the Internet excessively.
Since there is little evidence for the existence of "net addiction'', I am (along with one of my colleagues, Rhona Magee) about to embark on some empirical research examining the area. If the Internet is addictive, we would expect to identify people with a maladaptive pattern of Internet use leading to significant impairment or distress as manifested by such things as: the Internet often being accessed more often or for longer periods of time than was intended, obsessive thinking and dreams about what is happening on the Internet, the need for markedly increased amounts of time on Internet to achieve satisfaction, agitation and anxiety on cessation of Internet activity, important social, occupational, or recreational activities given up or reduced because of Internet use, and persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control Internet use. Other manifestations may include spending a lot of time in activities related to Internet use (eg buying Internet books, trying out new Web browsers, researching Internet vendors, organising files of downloaded materials). Whether "net addiction'' actually exists has yet to be ascertained but I believe it is an area in which research is much needed.
There is little doubt that activities involving person-machine interactivity are here to stay and that with the introduction and proliferation of interactive desktop computers, virtual reality consoles and the Internet, the number of potential technological addictions (and its "addicts") will increase. Although I have asserted there is little empirical evidence for technological addictions as distinct clinical entities at present, extrapolations from the research into other technological addictions (namely fruit machine addiction, video/computer game addiction and television addiction) suggest that they do - and will - exist. The "casualties'' of the technological revolution will, if detected and formally identified as a problem, end up in the therapeutic domain of psychologists. Technological addictions are without doubt an issue of interest and concern not only for psychologists but for everyone.
Mark Griffiths is a lecturer in the psychology department at the University of Plymouth. This paper, "Technological Addictions - a new area of psychological study", was presented at the British Psychological Society's annual conference earlier this week.