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"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.]