Internet Addiction

What once was parody may soon be diagnosis.

In 1995, in an effort to parody the way the American Psychiatric Association’s hugely influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders medicalizes every excessive behavior, psychiatrist Ivan Goldberg introduced on his website the concept of “Internet Addiction Disorder.” Last summer Ben Alexander, a 19-year-old college student obsessed with the online multiplayer game World of Warcraft, was profiled by CBS News, NPR, the Associated Press, and countless other media outlets because of his status as client No. 1 at reSTART, the first residential treatment center in America for individuals trying to get themselves clean from Azeroth, iPhones, and all the other digital narcotics of our age.

At reSTART’s five-acre haven in the woods near Seattle, clients pay big bucks to detox from pathological computer use by building chicken coops, cooking hamburgers, and engaging in daily therapy sessions with the program’s two founders, psychologist Hilarie Cash and clinical social worker and life coach Cosette Rae. With room for just six addicts at a time and a $14,500 program fee, reSTART isn’t designed for the masses, and so far it seems to have attracted more reporters than paying clients. When I spoke with Rae in May, she said “10 to 15” people had participated in the 45-day program to date.

Still, the fact that reSTART exists at all shows how far we’ve progressed in taking Dr. Goldberg’s spoof seriously. You may have been too busy monitoring Kim Kardashian’s every passing thought-like thing on Twitter to notice, but Digital Detox Week took place in April, and Video Game Addiction Awareness Week followed on its heels in June. Internet addiction disorder has yet to claim a Tiger Woods of its own, but the sad, silly evidence of our worldwide cyber-bingeing mounts on a daily basis. A councilman in the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv is ousted from his position for playing Farmville during budget meetings. There are now at least three apps that use the iPhone’s camera to show the world right in front of you so you can keep texting while walking down the street, confident in your ability to avoid sinkholes, telephone poles, and traffic. Earlier this year, 200 students taking a class in media literacy at the University of Maryland went on a 24-hour media fast for a group study, then described how “jittery,” “anxious,” “miserable,” and “crazy” they felt without Twitter, Facebook, iPods, and laptops. “I clearly am addicted,” one student concluded, “and the dependency is sickening.”

In the early days of the Web, dirty talk was exchanged at the excruciatingly slow rate of 14.4 bits per second, connectivity charges accrued by the hour instead of the month, and the only stuff for sale online was some overpriced hot sauce from a tiny store in Pasadena. It took the patience of a Buddhist monk, thousands of dollars, and really bad TV reception to overuse the Web in a self-destructive manner. Yet even then, many people felt Ivan Goldberg’s notes on Internet addiction worked better as psychiatry than comedy. A year before Goldberg posted his spoof, Kimberly Young, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, had already begun conducting formal research into online addiction. By 1996 the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital had established a computer addiction clinic, a professor at the University of Maryland had created an Internet addiction support group, and The New York Times was running op-eds about the divorce epidemic that Internet addiction was about to unleash.

Fifteen years down the line, you’d think we’d all be introverted philanderers by now, isolating ourselves in the virtual Snuggie of World of Warcraft by day and stepping out at night to destroy our marriages with our latest hook-ups from AshleyMadison.com. But the introduction of flat monthly fees, online gaming, widespread pornography, MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, WiFi, iPhones, netbooks, and free return shipping on designer shoes with substantial markdowns does not seem to have made the Internet any more addictive than it was a decade ago. 

In 1998 Young told the Riverside Press-Enterprise that “5 to 10 percent of the 52 million Internet users [were] addicted or ‘potentially addicted.’ ” Doctors today use similar numbers when estimating the number of online junkies. In 2009 David Greenfield, a psychiatrist at the University of Connecticut, told the San Francisco Chronicle that studies have shown 3 percent to 6 percent of Internet users “have a problem.” Is it possible that the ability to keep extremely close tabs on Ashton Kutcher actually has reduced the Internet’s addictive power?

Granted, 3 percent is an awful lot of people. Argue all you like that a real addiction should require needles, or spending time in seedy bars with people who drink vodka through their eyeballs, or at least the overwhelming and nihilistic urge to invest thousands of dollars in a broken public school system through the purchase of lottery tickets. Those working on the front lines of technology overuse have plenty of casualties to point to. In our brief conversation, Cosette Rae tells me about a Harvard student who lost a scholarship because he spent too much time playing games, a guy who spent so many sedentary hours at his computer that he developed blood clots in his leg and had to have it amputated, and an 18-year-old who chose homelessness over gamelessness when his parents told him he either had to quit playing computer games or move out.

A few minutes on Google yields even more lurid anecdotes. In 2007 an Ohio teenager shot his parents, killing his mother and wounding his father, after they took away his Xbox. This year a South Korean couple let their real baby starve to death because they were spending so much time caring for their virtual baby in a role-playing game called Prius Online.

On a pound-for-pound basis, the average World of Warcraft junkie undoubtedly represents a much less destructive social force than the average meth head. But it’s not extreme anecdotes that make the specter of Internet addiction so threatening; it’s the fact that Internet overuse has the potential to scale in a way that few other addictions do. Even if Steve Jobs designed a really cool-looking syringe and started distributing free heroin on street corners, not everyone would try it. But who among us doesn’t already check his email more often than necessary? As the Internet weaves itself more and more tightly into our lives, only the Amish are completely safe.

As early as 1996, Kimberly Young was promoting the idea that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) should add Internet addiction disorder to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). In February, the APA announced that its coming edition of the DSM, the first major revision since 1994, will for the first time classify a behavior-related condition—pathological gambling— as an “addiction” rather than an “impulse control disorder.” Internet addiction disorder is not being included in this new category of “behavioral addictions,” but the APA said it will consider it as a “potential addition…as research data accumulate.”

If the APA does add excessive Internet use to the DSM, the consequences will be wide-ranging. Health insurance companies will start offering at least partial coverage for treatment programs such as reSTART. People who suffer from Internet addiction disorder will receive protection under the Americans With Disabilities Act if their impairment “substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Criminal lawyers will use their clients’ online habits to fashion diminished capacity defenses.

Which means that what started as a parody in 1995 could eventually turn more darkly comic than ever imagined. Picture a world where the health care system goes bankrupt because insurers have to pay for millions of people determined to kick their Twitter addictions once and for all. Where employees who view porn at work are legally protected from termination. Where killing elves in cyberspace could help absolve you for killing people in real life. Is it too late to revert to our older, healthier, more balanced ways of living and just spend all our leisure hours watching Love Boat reruns?

Contributing Editor Greg Beato (gbeato@soundbitten.com) invites Internet addicts to follow him on Twitter at @gregbeato.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Suki||

    Why would anybody here be interested in internet addiction?

  • Almanian||

    Exactly. Suki for the win, right out of the gate.

  • Nihixul||

    "14.4 bits per second"

    Uhm....

  • Almanian||

    That's an abacus, right?

  • Brett L||

    Man, that's old school, I never went lower than a 1200 baud modem.

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy||

    I used a 150 baud acoustically coupled (*) machine once.

    (*) You take your standard-sized telephone handset (leased from AT&T) and nestle it into the two rubber cups, taking care to get the talk and listen ends the right way round...

  • ||

    I think my acoustically coupled modem, via which I TELECOMMUTED using a SOROC IQ120 terminal, if you can believe it, was 300 baud. That was back in the late 1970s. It's a far cry from connecting via a secure VPN over a wifi apparatus that's built into my laptop.

  • ||

    Oh yeah, and we could play hot games through the 300 baud modem and video terminal, too: WUMPUS and STARTREK, for instance. If you weren't a hard-core gamer, there was always TICTAC(toe). Yeah, that's what we had and we wuz glad of it!

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy||

    This was a fanfold terminal that came home with Dad to monitor some long running jobs on the work mainframe. Couldn't tell you the model cause I was about seven at the time.

    But I was allowed to play ANIMALS on it as much as I liked, and there was some REPL development environment that Dad tried to interest me in. Didn't work at the time, but a few ears later we got an Apple ][+ and I was hooked.

  • ||

    i had a 300 baud modem on my trs-80 (call it a trash-80 I DARE YOU!) color computer. it came with 4k ram, but i was a stud and upgraded to 64k through a third party vendor.

  • ||

    Besides, you don't kill elves in World of Warcraft; they're the good guys!

    /hides PhD in Psychology

  • Jordan||

    Somebody has never been to Tempest Keep or Sunwell...
    /nerd

  • ||

    Or even Dire Maul....

  • ||

    Oh, or Wailing Caverns. I guess Darwin never made it out of the starting areas.

  • Jordan||

    I think he's Alliance scum. They rarely go to WC.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    The noob rogues and druids come for the leather. Or so I heard.

  • ||

    Possibly...or maybe I'm just really keen to hide my nerdiness and thus have come up with a clever way to imply that I haven't been playing for years!

    Long live the Cartel Enforcers!

  • Comrade Zero||

    What if you're Horde?

  • hmm||

    The elf death twirl was awesome. Elves need killin'

  • -||

    It's so cute how the nerds out themselves.

  • ||

    Said the person posting on frickin' H&R, on a thread about intartubes addiction.

  • hmm||

    I'm a proud nerd.

  • ||

    i remember when Zork came out, and computer gaming was SO SOPHISTICATED. "it can understad a WHOLE SENTENCE!!"

  • ||

    "We're nerd! Not herd! Get used to it!"

    (Of course, this chant only works on a picket sign. People get something different when you shout it out. It's a known bug and we're working on it.)

  • ||

    Picture a world where the health care system goes bankrupt because insurers have to pay for millions of people determined to kick their World of Warcraft addictions once and for all.

    Well, it was a choice between rehab or jail time.

    (I'm assuming there would have to be a law to make WoW addiction illegal, because there's no way those users are going to want to quit.)

  • pmains||

    Oh, yes. Criminalizing the behavior worked so well for alcohol and other drugs.

  • Metazoan||

    And congress actually cares about "what works."

  • ||

    When the hell are they going to add self-identified n***** to the list of pathologies?

  • ||

    I'm addicted to global thermonuclear war. Also, tic tac toe. Remember, the only way to win is not to play!

  • mr simple||

    Wouldn't you prefer a nice game of chess?

  • ||

    I loved it when you nuked Las Vegas. Suitably biblical ending to the place, don't you think?

  • ||

    Just like the Gulag - using psychiatry to stifle debate.
    Of course, they will start with Reason readers. Sure, a good number of us are paranoic...and schizophrenic...neurotic... and compulisive obsessive - and f*cking goofy (not that there is anything wrong with that).
    uh, ....we're not addicts, we're dedicated.

  • ||

    When I was a kid and the internet was a twisted fantasy of Jerry Pournelle's, approximately 5% to 10% of the public were introverted, contact avoiding, self-nihilistic mental masturbators. It is good to see that the percentages have not changed as I have aged.

  • ||

    I'm hoping they define "legislative addiction" as a mental disorder in the next edition. You know, the condition that causes ostensibly sane people to pass stupid laws just to look like they're doing something.

  • Fiscal Meth||

    Don't forget Mental-Disorder-Invention-Syndrome.

    Where one pronounces each and every thing that people choose to do frequently to be an addiction and becomes addicted to such declarations. Common among shrinks and politicians.

  • guy in the back row||

    So if you are in contact with others amd chatting with strangers in a PC based life you're an addict, but if you do the same IRL (like all the chatty folks at the post office or grocery store who talk to strangers) you're normal?

  • Applederry||

    I think you're mixing two different things here. You're generally considered an addict if it adversely affects your life outside of the habit. If those chatty people spend their entire day walking around the grocery store not buying anything, but just looking to talk to strangers, then yes they definitely have a problem.

  • ||

    If those chatty people spend their entire day walking around the grocery store not buying anything, but just looking to talk to strangers, then yes they definitely have a problem.

    So, should we be filling the asylums with the membership of AARP?

  • ||

    And if you form a big list of every douchy leftist you know and write hundreds of e-mails to each other about random people racists and "putting Leaden through a window" you are not addicted there either.

  • Fiscal Meth||

    I think the tendency to refer to the goings-on of the non-binary world as "IRL" is one of the symptoms.

  • ||

    It's NOT an addiction! Now leave me alone I only need 7 more badges for my new head piece.

  • ||

    XYZZY.

  • Joe M||

    I'm addicted to two word imperative phrases!

  • ||

    PLUGH.

  • Numeromancer||

    Stop it!

  • ||

    You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike

  • hmm||

    Go left.

  • ||

    You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.

  • hmm||

    look up.

  • Hooha||

    You see a flask. Exits are North, South, and Dennis.

  • hmm||

    drink flask.

    duh.

  • hmm||

    drink flask

  • Grue||

    You are eaten by me.

  • Old Mexican||

    In 2009 David Greenfield, a psychiatrist at the University of Connecticut, told the San Francisco Chronicle that studies have shown 3 percent to 6 percent of Internet users “have a problem.”

    Hollier-than-thou, arrogant busybodies will almost always say that what other people do is a "problem", if the hollier-than-thou, arrogant busybody happens not to like that activity.

    Why is it a "problem", asshole? If you already have tenure, would you please stop trying to justify your existence and shut the fuck up?

  • Joe||

    Tenure in medical reseach doesn't mean much. You have to keep justifying that what you are studying is enough of a problem that the grants keep rolling in.

  • Old Mexican||

    Ah, so that explains this piece of unscientific fluffery.

  • ||

    I'm thinking that only Santa Claus may be "hollier than thou."

    Ho ho ho.

  • Old Mexican||

    Is it too late to revert to our older, healthier, more balanced ways of living and just spend all our leisure hours watching Love Boat reruns?

    Hey! I learned English by watching Love Boat reruns, enough to the point I noticed the show stank.

  • Clay||

    I call hooey on this like I call hooey on a lot of these so called addictions. All they do is give folks something to blame when life goes wrong instead of becoming responsible and dealing with the issue. To be an addiction I believe the withdrawals should be able to cause real life death, not some uncomfortable feeling. If it is just a feeling, get over it already and grow up. Tissue?

    Life's hard, its even harder if you're stupid. - John Wayne

  • Fiscal Meth||

    "To be an addiction I believe the withdrawals should be able to cause real life death..."

    if you die in the matrix...

  • Hooha||

    I lol'd.

  • ||

    What I'd like to see is addicts classified as a protected class under the ADA. So businesses would be forced to offer reasonable accommodations to heroin, porn, gaming, and other addictions.

  • ||

    i'll take two lids of smack,anal intruders part deux and 4 hrs of bioshock... on uncle sam's tab!!!

  • hmm||

    I'm still in contact with a lot, probably 75% or more, of the people I played EQ with. I hate to report this, but everyone is doing fine. Some are doing great including one person starting his own game company and hiring at least 2 people, that I know of that he knew from EQ. There are people from middle managers to people seeking PhDs, to people running their own businesses. And this was a game that took massive amounts of time and cooperation in comparison to WoW, and the PvP was 100 times more ruthless on the server they all played (it got so bad that people within Sony were trying to solve the rivalries)

    So, having played a PvP server in a game where at one point some raids took 100+ characters be managed for 2-4 hours to achieve a goal. I feel comfortable in saying that the learned people that believe this shit are fucking morons. Just like I know by definition functioning alcoholics that do just fine. I know a metric shitton of functioning gaming addicts that do just fine.

    Some one needs to gank these noobs and CC them until their corpses rot.

  • hmm||

    Oh ya, and one MD, and at least one soon to be lawyer.

  • hmm||

  • Fiscal Meth||

    If we don't stop this guy, it could mean the end of the world...of warcraft

  • Hooha||

    But.... how do you kill that which has no life?

  • hmm||

    corpse camp the fucker till his gear rots.

    WoW player won't get that.

  • ||

    You can only restrain it within a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.

  • ||

    Not with the Sword of a Thousand Truths. That's for damn sure.

  • Cliché Bandit||

    I kind of wish I was addicted. I have been playing WoW since day 1 (rough day for servers) and my main is only 73. Yeah yeah get it out of your system jerks. I been busy. And the bastards keep upping levels before I can max (This is very frustrating). Also, what kind of an idiot doesnt kill elves. Who would want to be a lighty? Hoard has much better raids and cooperation. Allys are usually too busy yelling at each other to realize that we just pwnd them in AV.

    When I am done playing with your game son you can have it back. Just one more level.

  • hmm||

    Lighty is an EQ term noob.

    Was that racist? Lighty and darkie for the good and evil races?

  • Cliché Bandit||

    Bite ME! I am still reeling from the pure rage that was my EQ days on TZ. Those god damn bards and their damn songs...ARGGHHH!

    Anyway, Ally, Lighty, teen Dbags...it is all the same. I just wish I didnt pay 79 dollars every three months and average three levels a year.

    CR from Neriak, I will be doing this for an hour.

  • Fiscal Meth||

    What the hell is "pwned"?

  • hmm||

    Owned. Due to typing in ability there is a hilarious post way back in the day where someone continuously mistyped owned as pwned. There's also an a mistake in I think warcraft where owned is spelled pwned.

  • Fiscal Meth||

    Ah, I see. They should make a game where the slaves revolt against the slave pwners.

  • hmm||

    owned is used in the sense of you've been owned, had your ass kicked.

  • hmm||

    What you are talking about are more broadly called easter eggs. Hidden or not so hidden things or homages.

  • Fiscal Meth||

    So it has nothing to do with property pwnership rights?

    I will use my pwn judgement to determine how to use the word thank you very much.

  • hmm||

    I fear we are not discussing the same thing. Maybe a chart, graph or picture will help.

  • Almanian||

    pwned!

  • ||

    johnny mnemonic was way ahead of its time. hackers, too. with a young, babyfaced angelina jolie.

  • ||

    Yeah but Hackers sucked. And the hackers as the poor, innocent, freedom-loving idealists was buttfucking off the mark from where we are today.

  • ||

    "Goddammit, Leroy."

  • Leroy||

    What did I do?

  • Leroy||

    At least I got chicken...

  • Leroy||

    Hey!

    Get your own moniker!

  • Leroy Jenkins||

    Lerroooooyyyyyyy Jeeeenglakjsdgins!

  • Hooha||

    Repeating, of course.

  • Tim||

    First fanboys now inetrnet addicts. Is Reason trying to alienate it's base?

  • Prohibitionist Exhibitionist||

    Excellent. The intertubes will have to be taxed even more to pay for all the rehab, otherwise these users will continue to burden society if left unchecked. If we raise taxes enough, we could eliminate internet use altogether.

    My proposal: The War on Internets!

  • Fiscal Meth||

    Hey man...you holdin? I'll suck yer
    d!ck for some nets man.

  • ||

    Whether you call it addiction, compulsive behaviour or whatever, it is a problem. A problem that only affects the person and should not be regulated, like gambling, but which psychologists address and those who think they have a problem can consult.

  • Thrall||

    I think a lot of Reason readers are WoW players. Addicted to Reason, and to WoW anyone?

  • anarch||

    What if you learned that anonybot didn't get paid for posting? Compulsiveness though not addiction?

    What about anyone who posts without getting paid for it?

  • TitaniumTeddyBear||

    The dominant theory if 'Net addiction that I subscribe to is that it is addictive because it provides an endless series of distractions from perceived inadequacies in one's own life.

    In other words: it doesn't matter what your specific problems are, then Internet can distract you from them.

  • ||

    Yeah, I'm being distracted right now from having to get my wife's car smogged so that I can get the overdue reg tags she needs to keep from being stopped by a cop. Said registration is overdue because, a few months back, some meter-maid in Berkeley decided to ticket the car for having a properly up-to-date back license plate but no front one. The car never HAD a front plate (we got it used), so we ended up having to get completely new plates. I had to install a special aftermarket bracket on the front just to hold the front plate. This switching of plates, however, somehow confused the DMV computer, which, in turn, lost track of us, and neglected to send the renewal forms. And why did the Berkeley meter-maid write us the ticket that started so many dominoes to fall? Because, I think, Berkeley has installed red-light cameras and probably counts on the income from them. The cameras work best when cars have front-plates. Hence, an aggressive effort to make sure all cars are subject to camera-enforcement.

    In short, the internet is distracting me from the fact that the government wants more of my money and is forcing me to spend my own time and effort to assist them with picking my pocket.

    As a distraction, the internet beats drinking oneself to sleep, I guess.

  • Fiscal Meth||

    "As a distraction, the internet beats drinking oneself to sleep, I guess."

    You sure? If you ask me, the latter works like gangbusters.

  • ||

    On the other hand, I have always been rather fond of my liver.

  • Fiscal Meth||

    Yeah, mine needs to be kept in line though. Kind of a tough love thing. Learnin her a lesson right now as a matter of fact.

  • p90x||

    it feels cool!

  • insanity||

    internet addiction in common!

  • This is obvious||

    The laws of supply and demand will handle the epidemic of internet addiction.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    Dumb 19 year olds think its cute to call their habits an addiction when they are talking to media morons.

    All of these people who can't keep their shit together because of "internet addiction" are obviously spending their time in lala land because of other problems. Yeah, the kid really killed his family just over an Xbox.

    Everyone else who spends significant portions of the day using communication media while still functioning as responsible people are simply using an activity to enhance their lives- no different from driving or working.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    Psychology is bullshit.

    (forgot to say it)

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    Sincerely,

    Marilyn Lanelot

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    I call hooey on this like I call hooey on a lot of these so called addictions. All they do is give folks something to blame when life goes wrong instead of becoming responsible and dealing with the issue. To be an addiction I believe the withdrawals should be able to cause real life death,شركة تنظيف منازل بالرياض - شركة مكافحة حشرات بالدمام not some uncomfortable feeling. If it is just a feeling, get over it already and grow up. Tissue?

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  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

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