Can't Stop Yourself From Reading This Post? Tell Your Boss.

"A lawsuit against IBM is reviving debate over whether Web overuse may be classified as an addiction," says the subhead above this BusinessWeek story. At first I thought the article was about a guy who was suing IBM for making the computer he used to go online. So I was actually a little relieved to see it was about a guy, James Pacenza, who is suing IBM for wrongful termination because it fired him for violating company policy by visiting a sex-oriented chat room at work. Pacenza says he suffers from Internet addiction and couldn't help himself, so IBM should have been more accommodating, as the Americans with Disabilities Act requires for addictions such as alcoholism. The article poses the question of whether using the Internet too much is indeed a "legitimate addiction," which the author defines as "uncontrollable" and "not just a bad habit."

Although BusinessWeek presents this question as a vexing, highly controversial issue, it should be clear that Web surfing, like anything else that provides pleasure or relieves stress, can be the focus of an addiction, one just as "legitimate" as alcoholism, compulsive gambling, or any other hard-to-break habit the American Psychiatric Association deigns to recognize as a "mental disorder." But an addiction is a bad habit (sometimes a good habit), and it is not "uncontrollable," although it is, by definition, difficult to give up. It's comical to see psychologists and psychiatrists argue about whether excessive Internet use is a "real" addiction, as if there were objective scientific criteria for making that determination. Some people use the Internet so much that it has a negative impact on their lives, and they have trouble cutting back because the activity is highly rewarding. Enough said.

But calling a pattern of behavior an addiction does not, or at least should not, give employees a free pass to violate company policy or screw up on the job. Even under the ADA, a company is not required to continue employing a guy who shows up at work drunk every day, although it may have to keep him on once he's sober and attending A.A. meetings. Likewise, even if Internet addiction were recognized as a "disability," an employer presumably could still get rid of a guy who spent all his time at work jerking off to Internet porn, although it might have to give someone like Pacenza a second chance and refer him to "treatment." To my mind, even that sort of requirement is unwarranted, but then I don't think accommodation of the blind, deaf, or semiparalyzed should be legally required either. The point is, even the ADA implicitly recognizes that addictions are not "uncontrollable," that it's legitimate for employers to expect people working for them to control their "compulsive" behavior enough to get their jobs done, albeit with a little employer-subsidized assistance. Although I don't expect them to start lifting passages from Thomas Szasz, Stanton Peele, or Jeffrey Schaler, it would be nice if publications like BusinessWeek stopped putting so much faith in the APA's arbitrary designations and stopped pretending that addicts literally can't help themselves.

Addendum: Commenter jb wonders if the distinguishing feature of true addictions is the biological changes directly caused by psychoactive substances—in particular the "physical dependence" that results in withdrawal symptoms. As he notes, that would leave out excessive gambling, which the APA does recognize as a disorder. It would also leave out drugs, such as cocaine and nicotine, that are not consistently associated with significant withdrawal symptoms. The APA used to say such drugs were "habituating" but not "addicting," a distinction it ultimately abandoned. Today the APA says withdrawal symptoms are neither necessary nor sufficient for a diagnosis of substance dependence; it distinguishes—quite rightly, in my view—between "physical dependence" and the psychological attachment that is the essence of addiction. This view of addiction, which harks back to the original meaning of the term, does not require physical withdrawal symptoms or direct chemical action (although all rewarding experiences have indirect effects on brain chemistry), and it allows us to acknowledge the clear parallels between, say, smoking and overeating, alcohol abuse and excessive gambling, "shopaholism" and porn obsession. 

[Thanks to Linda Stewart for the link.]

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  • ||

    I thought the "real addiction" thing referred to drugs that caused direct chemical changes in you, and, if you didn't have them long enough, there were physical withdrawal symptoms. I.E, take a cocaine addict and an internet addict, put them in a room together with neither cocaine nor internet, and see which one cracks up and which one just gets bored.

    I also realize this makes, say, gambling not a real addiction. I'm cool with that.

  • D.A. Ridgely||

    I assume Internet Addicts meetings will be online.

  • ||

    I assume Internet Addicts meetings will be online.

    ...with pornography and gambling ads being the business model for supporting the meeting sites.

  • ||

    I have an unfair advantage. Reason has sent me both "Saying Yes" and "For Your Own Good." Thanks.

    The problem comes from conflating addiction, which originally meant fun, to habituating, which means relies upon the substance. Roller coasters can be addicting, but not habituating.

    The meanings of the words have been changed to accommodate a view that says if you are addicted, you can no longer make choices, instead the addiction makes them for you.

  • Dan T.||

    The more we learn about the brain, the more of us will come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as "choice" and that nothing is anybody's fault.

  • ||

    The more we learn about the brain, the more of us will come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as "choice" and that nothing is anybody's fault.

    I wonder the end result of that conclusion would be. Regulation of everything, or regulation of nothing?

  • biologist||

    all I know is, Hit and Run is the intermittently operational food dispensing lever in the Skinner box of my existence

  • Sammy Franklin||

    it would be nice if publications like BusinessWeek stopped putting so much faith in the APA's arbitrary designations and stopped pretending that addicts literally can't help themselves.

    c'mon, Mr. Sullum. don't play dumb with us. This case is being more widely reported than any other current ADA case because t is good PR for both IBM and for business in general.

    The game is to publicize the most ridiculous cases so that people who have never read an actual ada complaint in their career think they understand what the ada is about. Of course, they come out with a very distorted idea of where the balance of the ada law lies, and that is the whole point.

    Want to read an ada case that is realistic and typical, rather than bouncing around in the frivolous litigation fun house:

    http://www.agolaw.com/reslibrary_article.asp?article=_hondawhack20061128

    I have mixed feelings about that case. It is a more realistic kind of case to consider as you ponder what ada policy really should be. Sullum should have blogged that case instead of this one, not for the least reason that it is a case that actually survived the summary judgement stage of litigation.

    And finally: someone on the Net who claims to know Pacenza says that he has post traimatic stress issues from Viet Nam. Who knows, maybe he does, maybe he doesn't. but it is just one more thing that makes me think HnR is hyping to daeth the craziest cases in lieu of talking about the realistic and difficult cases that actually mean something as far as actual, precedential law goes.

    But the real po'faced thing is Sullum chiding Business Week. C'mon Jacob. We did not just fall off the turnip truck here.

  • ||

    Want to read an ada case that is realistic and typical, rather than bouncing around in the frivolous litigation fun house

    Isn't that case in Canada? What does that have to do with the Americans With Disabilities Act?

  • The Irate Pirate||

    I think this statement should lead to some interesting classes of ADDICTION

    "it should be clear that Web surfing, like anything else that provides pleasure or relieves stress, can be the focus of an addiction, one just as "legitimate" as alcoholism"

    - why haven't you been doing your work? Not doing it gives me pleasure and relieves stress!
    -Why where you going 110 through a school zone? Doing so gave me pleasure and relieved stress!
    -Why did you pull out your putz on the bus? Doing so gave me pleasure and relieved stress!

    I can see it now what a wonderful world to live in.

    Then we can turn distrusting the government into a mental health issue and we'll all be in asylums, just like in Russia

  • Jonathan C. Hohensee||

    I'm a rageoholic. I'm addicted to rageohol.

  • Sammy Franklin||

    yes, Swillfredo, I know the case is canadian and that they call their version of the ada something else, and that there are probably substantive differences between canadian and American law.

    the only question I have is how come you didn't understand that I understood that. Are you have a po'facedness contest with Big J in The Big D?

  • Dan T.||

    Maybe regulating computer usage is something to be considered. We already know computers are bad for the environment (energy usage, disposal of obsolete systems, etc), and it's becoming readily apparent they're also bad for us. Are computers really that necessary?

  • Kip||

    The problem with labeling all compulsive behaviors as addictions is that it undermines people's sense of choice, free-will and accountability. "i'm addicted" becomes an excuse. Like sullum said, the idea that an addict cannot quit is fallacious. An addict chooses not to quit, wether they realize that or not. No matter how 'addicted' someone is, the decision making facility is never taken away from them.
    have you ever read any of the studies on teen cigarette addiction? Apparently, all teens become addicted within days of starting smoking. but if you look closesly all they're basing that conclusion on is ambiguous definitions and decidedly unscientific research methods. Basically they survey kids about the most subjective of symptoms; irritability, anxiety, trouble concentrating, etc.

  • Sammy Franklin||

    What do you make of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, KipEsquire?

    I have mixed feelings on that one as a disability. What do you think?

  • Kip||

    Sorry this isn't kipEsquire. I should probably post here under a different name since i know he's a regular here.

  • ||

    Jacob, it seems to me that there's an important distinction between habituating and addicting, or addicting and physical-dependence-causing, or whatever other word-pair you want to use. Alcohol and heroin cause types of problems that internet addiction don't; it may not always be important to public policy, but it seems a good thing to keep in mind.

    Dan T., your first comment is probably true but not useful, in the same way that the statement "the chair I'm currently sitting on is 99.999% empty space" is true but not useful. That is, both are technically true, but if I spend my life worrying that the chair won't hold me up because it's mostly empty space, I'm silly and am going to lead a troublingly nervous life. Similarly, I believe that all choices are impelled by brain chemistry, in some reductionist sense; that doesn't mean that's the best way to evaluate choices, from either a personal-life or public-policy perspective. All it means is that your choices are determined by your DNA and your parenting and your upbringing and all the experiences you've had to date; most people who argue for 'true choice' or 'free will' would say the same thing, and trying to interact with people as if they were cogs leads to pretty screwed up situations. Can we really punish that murderer? He didn't have a choice.

  • Dan T Minus 1||

    Are computers really that necessary?

    No.
    Having said that, please leave, Dan T, and never come back.

  • Rhywun||

    it fired him for violating company policy by visiting a sex-oriented chat room at work

    Hm. I wonder if the Internet is the actual focus of his addiction.

  • Dan T.||

    I don't think too many people will be worried about their computers when it's 900 degrees outside because of a runaway greenhouse effect. Computers are to the planet what cigarettes are to humans. So puff away, Reasonoids.

  • ||

    HELP ME! I'm addicted to 12-Step-Programs.

  • Rhywun||

    HELP ME! I'm addicted to 12-Step-Programs.

    I had seen her (him?) at Free and Clear, my blood parasite group Thursdays. Then at Hope, my bi-monthly sickle cell circle. And again at Seize the Day, my tuberculous Friday night. NoStar... the big tourist.

  • Tyler||

    Marla...that little sore on the roof of your mouth that would heal if only you could stop tonguing it.

  • Kip||

    as long as we're doing fight club quotes...

    I haven't been fucked like that since i was twelve!

  • biologist||

    ok, I'm going to be pedantic (again). please bear with me. Marla's line is "I haven't been fucked like that since grade school!"

    according to the commentary tracks on the DVD, in the book, Marla's line is "I want to have your abortion!"

  • Rhywun||

    according to the commentary tracks on the DVD, in the book, Marla's line is "I want to have your abortion!"

    She uses that line in a deleted scene too - delivered in a strange, breathy whisper. I'm glad they changed it - the "less offensive" version works better IMHO.

  • ||

    Yay! I made it into an addendum! My life is complete!

    I agree with Kip's first comment: If we allow "I'm addicted, it's a disability" to become an excuse, we lose our insistence on human agency. I'd rather unjustly fire a few addicts than give up on the humanist view of humans--the addiction excuse is, in my mind, no different than the "nothing happens contrary to God's will, this happened, God must have caused it" that was and is rife in societies that have not passed through the Enlightenment.

  • M||

    "The more we learn about the brain, the more of us will come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as 'choice' and that nothing is anybody's fault."

    I wonder the end result of that conclusion would be. Regulation of everything, or regulation of nothing?

    What agent will be understood to have so concluded? What agent will be thought capable of imposing any regulations at all? And who would be thought responsible for complying with any such regulation?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infinite_regress

  • ||

    "the addiction excuse is, in my mind, no different than the 'nothing happens contrary to God's will, this happened, God must have caused it' that was and is rife in societies that have not passed through the Enlightenment."

    The H&R guarantee: If we're criticizing some folly of our modern, secular era, we will be sure to balance it out by a sweeping and inaccurate swipe at religion, no matter how irrelevant it might be to the topic.

    There may be some religions who see God as the author of evil, but not every "pre-enlightment" religion holds that idea. Check out the decree of the Council of Trent on Justification, including the role of free will:

    http://history.hanover.edu/texts/trent/ct06.html

  • ||

    and check this out, from the same Council:

    http://history.hanover.edu/texts/trent/ct06.html

    "CANON VI.-If any one saith, that it is not in man's power to make his ways evil, but that the works that are evil God worketh as well as those that are good, not permissively only, but properly, and of Himself, in such wise that the treason of Judas is no less His own proper work than the vocation of Paul; let him be anathema."

  • Larry A||

    the addiction excuse is, in my mind, no different than the "nothing happens contrary to God's will, this happened, God must have caused it" that was and is rife in societies that have not passed through the Enlightenment.

    There is the difference that in most god-controlled philosophies the personal responsibility question is, "What did you do to piss off the deity?"

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