John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article dated Nov 96 (v1.0)

Internet Addiction

In this Interview with Morris Jones of Internet Australasia magazine, I respond to his questions about my article on Computer and Cyberspace Addictions.

* You write in your article on Computer and Cyberspace Addiction that the two are quite distinct. What makes Internet addiction unique? Are there sub-categories within it?

I think all cyberspace "addictions" can be separated into two very general categories: social and non-social types.Some people may be very preoccupied with their computers but have little interest in using it l to communicate and socialize with others. These people may use their computers, as well as the internet, to play solitary games, work, collect information, or explore. In other words, they may be game, information, or adventure junkies - or simply workaholics - but they aren't not necessarily using cyberspace to make interpersonal connections.

My guess is that most internet addictions are the social type. People get hooked on chat environments, MOOS, and mailing lists. They may have extensive email relationships. They are looking for SOCIAL stimulation. The needs underlying this social internet addiction are interpersonal: to be recognized, to belong, to be powerful, to be loved, etc. In contrast people addicted only to their computer often avoid the interpersonal "chaos" of chat rooms and the like. For them, the need for control and predictability may be dominant.

But at the deepest level, the psychological problems underlying ALL types of addictions have their origin in emotional conflicts, trauma, and/or deprivation. As a psychoanalytically trained psychologist, I tend to think that almost all addictions can be traced to difficulties in relationships during childhood. In the non-social type of cyberspace addiction, the interpersonal needs are probably more deeply buried.


* You also mention the distinction between enthusiasm and preoccupation. How can you measure this with the Internet?


This is semantics, and essentially boils down to the definition of an "addiction" or a "compulsion." When is a behavior healthy and when is it pathological. There's no quick and simple answer to this question. When a behavior "significantly" interferes with your functioning, then it is considered pathological. But what's "significantly?" In articles I and others have written, a variety of criteria have been proposed for defining the extent to which the addiction interferes with a person's relationships, work, and ability to live a healthful, fulfilling life. But there is no black and white in diagnosing behavioral problems - just many shades of gray. One person's "pathological" addiction is another's passion for living. Was Mozart "addicted" to music? Or Einstein to physics?

Almost all journalists who contact me want to know about internet addiction. Does this reflect our culture's enthusiasm for or preoccupation with the idea of an "internet addiction?" Are we addicted to the concept of addiction? I really do believe that focusing too much on the idea of an "internet addiction" can result in oversimplifications and launch us straight down a dead end. Spending a lot of time in cyberspace is a behavior, one facet of a person's life, and needs to understood within the entire landscape of an individual's psyche and lifestyle. I cannot emphasize this point enough.


* To what extent does Internet addiction relate to the broader scope of pathological addictions such as gambling, sex, etc.?


I think there are a core set of psychological issues that underlie all "psychological" addictions. Probably the most common and basic problem is a deficit in one's sense of self - a "hole" or "void" in one's identity, self-esteem, or self-worth that needs to be "filled". Then, on top of that core deficit, there may be another layer of psychological issues that is unique to that particular addiction. Drug addictions may be unique unto themselves since there is a distinct biochemical component to the problem. "Social" internet addictions may be unique because the internet allows people to interact in ways that are very different than face-to-face encounters.

Various people have mentioned DSM 4 and its lack of a definition. Do you think it is appropriate to put a definition for Internet addiction into the next revision?

I'm not sure there's much to be gained by creating an "internet addiction" category. I think it's biggest effect would be on the political level in that it would become an "official" disorder and therefore legitimate for treatment within the mental health system. Maybe that would be a good thing, I'm not sure. For the clinician working with the person, the label might not make much of a difference. The addictive behavior still needs to be understood and treated within the context of the person's whole life.


* You have explained that there are no precise diagnostic criteria yet for Internet addiction. Apart from the generic examples of addiction that you cite, are there any other points that could be singled out as applying to the Internet?

I think the signs of an internet addiction have been clearly outlined in the work of such people as Kimberly Young and Ivan Goldberg. But as I mention in the articles on my web site, even when research delineates a clear collection of symptoms that seem to constitute a "disorder," it doesn't necessarily mean that you have a valid diagnostic category. The "validity" of a diagnostic category means that the category correlates with something meaningful. Do the people who meet the criteria for an "internet addiction" have similar personality features, or similar elements in their history, or similar prognoses, or respond similarly to the same treatment, or even similar physiological make-ups? If the answer to these questions and others like them is "no," then you have a label, a category, but it relates to nothing.

Let me give you a somewhat silly example, but I think it will help clarify what I'm trying to say about this important but very technical issue about what constitutes a genuine "disorder." If I claim that I have a new diagnostic category which I call "Bliknot" and the criteria are people who are (1) tall, (2) wear gray pants, (3) like baseball, and (4) refuse to eat spinach..... I certainly will find people who fit this rather unusual collection of criteria. But whether these people have anything else meaningful in common, or whether there is truly a distinct underlying cause or process or disease condition resulting in "Bliknot," is still an open question.

MUCH research is needed to establish a diagnostic category as reliable and valid. The concept of an internet addiction is new, so there hasn't been enough time yet to do this research. Until then, it's unlikely the DSM will be modified to include a category such as this. Internet addiction might be listed as yet another form of addictive BEHAVIOR, or as yet another type of compulsion, but this is not the same as saying it is a reliable, valid diagnostic category.


* What advice would you offer a potential addict?

Set a realistic limit on the amount of time you are comfortable spending at the computer. Listen to the feedback of the significant people in your life. Ask yourself if your life is being enriched or depleted as a result of your time spent in the computer world. Realize that we can all go over board in a new and exciting activity but most of the time we are able to examine it's impact on our life and cut back on it if it's causing us problems.

Here's a simple exercise I suggest to people who worry about whether they are "addicted" to cyberspace and spend too much time there. Take a week off. Just one week without turning on the computer.... and see what happens. Notice when and how the urge to fire up the machine hits you. Notice how you feel when you don't give in to that urge. Notice what you do with the time and energy that you would have otherwise given to cyberspace. This exercise can help people understand the underlying needs and feelings that fuel the potential "addiction."

If you see that your time in cyberspace is causing you problems and yet you can't seem to make a change, then you may need to seek some counseling. The three forms of treatment that are useful for any type of addiction are: (1) behavioral approaches designed to modify the addictive behavior, (2) self-help groups, (3) good old-fashioned, insight-oriented "psychotherapy." My bet is the most powerful treatment would involve combinations of the above, perhaps all three.


* Is the problem getting worse?

More and more people are getting involved in the internet, so more people will likely become "addicted." But part of the apocalyptic concern about internet addiction is a cultural perception. It's the new "disease" of the week. After all, very few people are leaping out of their seats with worry about video games addiction anymore. I wonder if there was a lot of concern about "telephone addiction" when the telephone was first introduced.


* What do you think of the research of Ivan Goldberg and Kimberly Young?


Although I'm still not convinced that the "internet addiction" is a reliable, valid diagnostic category, there's no doubt in my mind that it is new behavioral phenomenon that deserves to be studied and understood. Goldberg and Young are two of the pioneers in this field, and I respect and admire their efforts.



See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:

To Get What You Need: Healthy and Pathological Internet Use
Cold Turkey: Messages from an Ex-Palace "Addict"
Why is This Thing Eating My Life? (computer and cyberspace addiction at the Palace)
Computer and Cyberspace Addiction
An Internet Addiction Questionnaire
Internet Addiction Disorder Support Group
Internet Addiction in a Nutshell


back to the Psychology of Cyberspace home page
www.rider.edu/suler/psycyber/psycyber.html