Internet Addiction Disorder

We’ve all seen it. A couple is out at a nice restaurant for dinner. They are sitting across from each other buried in their smart phones, not interacting with each other. Or perhaps exchanging the occasional unfocused remark. And then there are the young people with their family or friends who are completely disengaged from interacting with the people in their company, but rather texting with friends somewhere else.

Most of us recognize these situations as annoying, potentially problematic and perhaps even destructive. But then we ask ourselves whether this is just a symptom of a changing world or is it something more – a symptom of a new malaise that demands attention.

Those who believe that it is or could be a serious addiction have found a voice in the recognition of Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) as a treatable illness, not entirely unlike drug or alcohol addiction.

IAD was initially seriously studied by Dr Kimberly S Young of the University of Pittsburg in a landmark study of 1996. Since then there have been numerous follow-up studies.

There is growing support for the inclusion of IAD in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV)”, the authoritative record for mental and related disorders. Supporters are advocating for inclusion of IAD in the next edition of the manual, set for a May 2013 publication.

Part of the difficulty of identifying IAD lies in the fact that the internet is ubiquitous in society, and is heavily used for legitimate purposes such as work, study, essential communications and valid entertainment. Nevertheless, the symptoms of IAD look quite familiar to anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of more conventional addictions. They include excessive unnecessary time spent on the internet, as much as 10 – 20 hours in a day, a feeling of happiness, even euphoria while online, and a feeling of depression, lonelines and emptiness when offline, deteriorating social relations, including marriage and at work, and lying about the time one spends on the internet.

A growing number of divorces have been grounded in the idea of abandonment of a spouse in favour of the internet – the “cyberwidow” phenomenon. As the relationships deteriorated, the internet usage grew to compensate. Also, there have been allegations of cyberaffairs, where online relationships replace real life relationships. In addition, some studies have indicated that Internet addicts can experience as much as 10% – 20% brain shrinkage. There has been evidence of growing difficulties with work time lost, and concentration issues among students.

The treatment for IAD bears some resemblance to traditional addiction treatments except that because the internet is often needed for legitimate purposes such as studies or work, abstinence is not a real option. However, counselling on time management is sometimes used in a form referred to as “practicing the opposite”, where time normally spent on the internet is set aside for completely different activities. Blocking certain applications can sometimes work, setting alarms to signal time to log off, and various other techniques. Studies of intervention outcomes are in their infancy and so little data exists as to which are the best techniques.

At this point, we don’t fully understand IAD, but do recognize its existence. We need to develop an increased awareness of its symptoms and potential treatments and over time, we will develop much better coping mechanisms.