John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article dated Aug 96, Revised Aug 98, March 99 (v1.8)
Computer and Cyberspace AddictionA hardcopy version of this article appeared as:
Suler, J. (2004). Computer and cyberspace addiction.
International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 1, 359-362.
A heated debate is rising among psychologists. With the explosion of excitement about the internet, some people seem to be a bit too excited. Some people spend way too much time there. Is this yet ANOTHER type of addiction that has invaded the human psyche?
Psychologists are not even sure yet what to call this phenomenon. Some label it an "Internet Addiction Disorder." But many people are addicted to their computers long before the internet enters their lives. Some people are extremely attached to their computer and don't even care about the internet. Perhaps we should call the phenomenon a "Computer Addiction." Also, let's not forget the very powerful, but now seemingly mundane and almost accepted addiction that some people develop to video games. Video games are computers too... very single-minded computers, but computers nevertheless. Or how about telephones? People get addicted to those too, and not just the sex lines. Like computers, telephones are a technologically enhanced form of communication and may fall into the category of "computer mediated communication" (aka, CMC) - as the researchers are dubbing internet activities. In the not too distant future, computer, telephone, and video technology may very well merge into one, perhaps highly addictive, beast.
Perhaps, on a broad level, it makes sense to talk about a "Cyberspace Addiction" - an addiction to virtual realms of experience created through computer engineering. Within this broad category, there may be subtypes with distinct differences. A teenager who plays hooky from school in order to master the next level of Donkey Kong may be a very different person than the middle aged housewife who spends $500 a month in AOL chat rooms - who in turn may be very different from the businessman who can't tear himself away from his finance programs and continuous internet access to stock quotes. Some cyberspace addictions are game and competition oriented, some fulfill more social needs, some simply may be an extension of workaholicism. Then again, these differences may be superficial.
Not many people are waving their fingers and fists in the air about video and work addictions. Not many newspaper articles are written about these topics either. They are passé issues. The fact that the media is turning so much attention to cyberspace and internet addictions may simply reflect the fact that this is a new and hot topic. It may also indicate some anxiety among people who really don't know what the internet is, even though everyone is talking about it. Ignorance tends to breed fear and the need to devalue.
Nevertheless, some people are definitely hurting themselves by their addiction to computers and cyberspace. When people lose their jobs, or flunk out of school, or are divorced by their spouses because they cannot resist devoting all of their time to virtual lands, they are pathologically addicted. These extreme cases are clear cut. But as in all addictions, the problem is where to draw the line between "normal" enthusiasm and "abnormal" preoccupation.
"Addictions" - defined very loosely - can be healthy, unhealthy, or a mixture of both. If you are fascinated by a hobby, feel devoted to it, would like to spend as much time as possible pursuing it - this could be an outlet for learning, creativity, and self-expression. Even in some unhealthy addictions you can find these positive features embedded within (and thus maintaining) the problem. But in truly pathological addictions, the scale has tipped. The bad outweighs the good, resulting in serious disturbances in one's ability to function in the "real" world. Almost anything could be the target of a pathological addiction - drugs, eating, exercising, gambling, sex, spending, working, etc. You name it, someone out there is obsessed with it. Looking at it from a clinical perspective, these pathological addictions usually have their origin early in a person's life, where they can be traced to significant deprivations and conflicts. They may be an attempt to control depression and anxiety, and may reflect deep insecurities and feelings of inner emptiness.
As yet, there is no official psychological or psychiatric diagnosis of an "Internet" or "Computer" addiction. The most recent (4th) edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (aka, DSM-IV) - which sets the standards for classifying types of mental illness - does not include any such category. It remains to be seen whether this type of addiction will someday be included in the manual. As is true of any official diagnosis, an "Internet Addiction Disorder" or any similarly proposed diagnosis must withstand the weight of extensive research. It must meet two basic criteria. Is there a consistent, reliably diagnosed set of symptoms that constitutes this disorder? Does the diagnosis correlate with anything - are there similar elements in the histories, personalities, and future prognosis of people who are so diagnosed. If not, "where's the beef?" It's simply a label with no external validity.
So far, researchers have only been able to focus on that first criteria - trying to define the constellation of symptoms that constitutes a computer or internet addiction. Psychologist Kimberly S. Young at the Center for On-Line Addiction (see the links at the end of this article) classifies people as Internet-dependent if they meet during the past year four or more of the criteria listed below. Of course, she is focusing specifically on internet addiction, and not the broader category of computer addiction:
- Do you feel preoccupied with the Internet or on-line services and think about it while off line?
- Do you feel a need to spend more and more time on line to achieve satisfaction?
- Are you unable to control your on-line use?
- Do you feel restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop your on-line use?
- Do you go on line to escape problems or relieve feelings such as helplessness, guilt, anxiety or depression?
- Do you lie to family members or friends to conceal how often and how long you stay online?
- Do you risk the loss of a significant relationship, job, or educational or career opportunity because of your on-line use?
- Do you keep returning even after spending too much money on on-line fees?
- Do you go through withdrawal when off line, such as increased depression, moodiness, or irritability?
- Do you stay on line longer than originally intended?
In what he intended as a joke, Ivan Goldberg proposed his own set of symptoms for what he called "Pathological Computer Use" (see Internet Addiction Disorder Support Group on this web site). Other psychologists are debating other possible symptoms of internet addiction, or symptoms that vary slightly from Young's criteria and Goldberg's parody of such criteria. These symptoms include:
- drastic lifestyle changes in order to spend more time on the net
- general decrease in physical activity
- a disregard for one's health as a result of internet activity
- avoiding important life activities in order to spend time on the net
- sleep deprivation or a change in sleep patterns in order to spend time on the net
- a decrease in socializing, resulting in loss of friends
- neglecting family and friends
- refusing to spend any extended time off the net
- a craving for more time at the computer
- neglecting job and personal obligations
On a listserv devoted to the cyberpsychology, Lynne Roberts (firstname.lastname@example.org) described some of the possible physiological correlates of heavy internet usage, although she didn't necessarily equate these reactions with pathological addiction:>
- A conditioned response (increased pulse, blood pressure) to the modem connecting
- An "altered state of consciousness" during long periods of dyad/small group interaction (total focus and concentration on the screen, similar to a mediation/trance state).
- Dreams that appeared in scrolling text (the equivalent of MOOing).
- Extreme irritability when interrupted by people/things in "real life" while immersed in c-space.
In my own article on "addictions" to the Palace, a graphical MOO/chat environment, I cited the criteria that psychologists often use in defining ANY type of addiction. It's clear that the attempts to define computer and internet addiction draw on these patterns that are perhaps common to addictions of all types - patterns that perhaps point to deeper, universal causes of addiction:
- Are you neglecting important things in your life because of this behavior?
- Is this behavior disrupting your relationships with important people in your life?
- Do important people in your life get annoyed or disappointed with you about this behavior?
- Do you get defensive or irritable when people criticize this behavior?
- Do you ever feel guilty or anxious about what you are doing?
- Have you ever found yourself being secretive about or trying to "cover up" this behavior?
- Have you ever tried to cut down, but were unable to?
- If you were honest with yourself, do you feel there is another hidden need that drives this behavior?
If you're getting a bit confused or overwhelmed by all these criteria, that's understandable. This is precisely the dilemma faced by psychologists in the painstaking process of defining and validating a new diagnostic category. On the lighter side, consider some of the more humorous attempts to define internet addiction. Below is one list from The World Headquarters of Netaholics Anonymous. Although this is intended as humor, note the striking similarity of some of the items to the serious diagnostic criteria... There is a kernel of truth even in a joke:
Top 10 Signs You're Addicted to the Net
10. You wake up at 3 a.m. to go to the bathroom and stop and check your e-mail on the way back to bed.
9. You get a tattoo that reads "This body best viewed with Netscape Navigator 1.1 or higher."
8. You name your children Eudora, Mozilla and Dotcom.
7. You turn off your modem and get this awful empty feeling, like you just pulled the plug on a loved one.
6. You spend half of the plane trip with your laptop on your lap...and your child in the overhead compartment.
5. You decide to stay in college for an additional year or two, just for the free Internet access.
4. You laugh at people with 2400-baud modems.
3. You start using smileys in your snail mail.
2. The last mate you picked up was a JPEG.
1. Your hard drive crashes. You haven't logged in for two hours. You start to twitch. You pick up the phone and manually dial your ISP's access number. You try to hum to communicate with the modem.
There's also the intriguing epistemological dilemma concerning the researchers who study cyberspace addictions. Are they addicted too? If they indeed are a bit preoccupied with their computers, does this make them less capable of being objective, and therefore less accurate in their conclusions? Or does their involvement give them valuable insights, as in participant observation research? There's no simple answer to these questions.
The Integration Principle: Bringing the Worlds Together
As a result of all the online work I've been doing, here's the premise I'm thinking about a lot:
It's a problem when your face-to-face life becomes dissociated from your cyberlife. It's healthy when your f2f life is integrated with your cyberlife.
People become "addicted" to the internet, or act out pathologically in cyberspace, when they have dissociated it from their f2f life. Their cyberspace activity becomes a world unto itself. They don't talk about it with the people in their f2f life. It becomes a walled-off substitute or escape from their life. Cyberspace almost becomes a dissociated part of their own mind - a sealed-off intrapsychic zone where fantasies and conflicts are acted out. Reality testing is lost. Fixing this dissociation is an implicit or explicit component of many of the techniques for helping internet addicted people.
On the other hand, healthy internet use means integrating the f2f and cyberspace worlds. You talk about your online life with your real world family and friends. You bring your real identity, interests, and skills into your online community. You call on the phone or meet in-person the people you know online. And it works the other way too: some of the people you knew primarily in the real world, you also contact through email or chat. "Bringing in the real world" is an important principle for helping people who are addictively stuck in cyberspace. And its also a powerful tool for intervening with people who are addicted to misbehaving in cyberspace, such as snerts. How do you cure an acting out adolescent who is hiding behind cyberspace anonymity? Address him by his real name. Find out about his real world interests and talk to him about it. And if all else fails, contact his parents.
Now let me go back again to the basic premise: "It's a problem when one's in-person life becomes dissociated from one's cyberlife." The beauty of this premise, I think, is that it also applies to the mirror image scenario. Some people vilify the internet. They want nothing to do with it. That also is dissociation, a failure to integrate. That also is a problem.
See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:
Why is This Thing Eating My Life? - An article that examines the healthy and unhealthy aspects of "addictions" to the Palace, a multimedia chat environment (see The Palace Study for more information about the Palace).
To Get What You Need: Healthy and Pathological Internet Use - A more in-depth, academic version of Palace article listed above.
Bringing Online and Offline Living Together: The Integration Principle - The rationale and strategies for integrating online and offline living.
An interview with me by Morris Jones from Internet Australasia magazine. In the interview I respond to Jones' questions about this addiction article.
Cold Turkey: Messages from an Ex-Palace "Addict" - A Palace user decides to break the habit.
Mom, Dad, Computer (Transference Reactions to Computers) - One reason why some people become so attached to their computer is that it satisfies intense (and often unconscious) interpersonal needs from their past.
Cyberspace as Dream World: Illusion and Reality at the Palace - Some people may be drawn to cyberspace because it fulfills the need for an altered state of consciousness, similar to dreams. This may be especially true of the highly visual and fantasy-based MOO environments like the Palace.
Internet Addiction Disorder Support Group - Ivan Goldberg's parody of "Pathological Computer Use."
Internet Addiction Questionnaire - devised by two German students.
Internet Addiction in a Nutshell - My opinion of this topic, as concisely as possible!
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See Also On Other Web Sites:
COLA -- Center for On-Line Addiction (http://netaddiction.com) - This comprehensive project conducted by Dr. Kimberly Young is devoted to the study of cyberspace addictions.
Azy Barak's reference list on net addiction and pathological use.