Journalists never seem to tire of discovering that human beings remain human even when they go online. From gambling and pornography to fraud and pederasty, the Internet makes everything old new again.
In this category of familiar stories with a cyberspace twist, one of the hardiest topics is Internet addiction, which the news media have been warning us about since 1995. The latest burst of coverage was generated by a study supposedly showing that 6 percent of Internet users are addicts.
The study, presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association (APA), is based on a survey of visitors to ABCNews.com. Among other things, the survey asked them if they felt preoccupied by the Internet, if they used it to escape problems, if they had trouble reducing their online time, and if they lied about the extent of their Internet use.
Psychologist David Greenfield, who developed the survey based on the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic criteria for "pathological gambling," identified respondents as addicts if they answered yes to five or more such questions. Of the 17,251 people who filled out the survey, 990 met this definition; hence the widely cited "6 percent."
Contrary to most of the press coverage, however, this figure cannot be confidently applied to Internet users in general, since the sample was limited to people who happened to visit the ABC News site and who were willing to complete the questionnaire. The fact that ABC News posted the survey in conjunction with its own coverage of Internet addiction probably skewed the sample further.
Some people seem to believe that the true incidence of Internet addiction is not 6 percent but zero. A Detroit News editorial called the condition "spurious" and observed, "If it can be successfully defined as a disorder, then Internet addiction will be covered by a good many medical insurance policies, and psychologists can expect a tide of Internet-addicted patients to flow into their offices."
It is hard to ignore the fact that the researchers promoting the concept of Internet addiction tend to be entrepreneurs as well as scientists. Greenfield, a West Hartford, Connecticut, therapist, runs a Web site that offers a "Free Virtual Addiction Test" for people who are wondering if they need professional help.
Psychologist Kimberly Young, who also presented a paper on Internet addiction at the APA meeting, is the founder and CEO of the Center for On-Line Addiction in Bradford, Pennsylvania. She runs the Web site netaddiction.com and offers online counseling to cyberspace junkies at a rate of $55 for each 50-minute session.
But the fact that people make money by "treating" Internet addiction does not mean that the problem is imaginary. After all, no one is forced to ask Greenfield or Young for help in controlling his Internet use.
Some people, by their own judgment, spend too much time online, jeopardizing their work, their health, or their relationships with family and friends. To insist that such a damaging preoccupation is not really an addiction because it does not involve a drug is to insist on an arbitrarily narrow definition that ignores everyday experience.
In real life, people can develop strong attachments to all sorts of things: food, sex, exercise, gambling, shopping, TV, video games. Sometimes these attachments get out of hand. This is what we mean when we talk about addiction: a pattern of behavior, not a chemical reaction.
When psychiatrists talk about addiction, by contrast, they pretend they are dealing with a precisely defined, objectively verifiable medical disorder. And when Greenfield urges them to recognize Internet addiction as such a disorder, he mimics their biological reductionism.
"The underlying neurochemical changes that occur during any pleasurable act have proven themselves to be potentially addictive on a brain-behavior level," he writes. But notice what this means: Any source of pleasure can be the focus of an addiction.
Greenfield loses sight of the point that drug abuse is simply one form of addiction, instead treating it as a template that all genuine addictions have to match. In his eagerness to show that the Internet is just like a drug, he calls it "potent," emphasizes "tolerance and withdrawal symptoms," and draws an analogy between higher modem speeds and faster routes of drug administration.
"There's a power here that's different from anything we've dealt with before," Greenfield declared at the APA meeting. Here is yet another way in which the Internet resembles drugs: Both inspire exaggeration.