This blog post is long overdue, I am sorry. I was distracted panicking about my summer SkyDive. I have, however, talked to John about Internet Addiction term over on YouTube. Here it is:
As a follow up to that chat, I would like to write up my take on it just in a bit more detail. What do I think about Internet Addiction? I think it is a problematic label at the moment although I hope the context of it is going to change in the upcoming years.
First of all, let’s remind ourselves that every person will have a different definition of Internet Addiction. Those personal interpretations of the term will range from media fed assumptions made by people who hate change, technology or both and assume that anything to do with the Internet is evil. Those clearly lack critical thinking but affect all of us. Walk into any mental health training and you will hear that social media is the first example of factors of bad mental health. (Why and who said so is never stated – we simply repeat what we hear). Media outlets have been scaring us with Internet Addiction since its first years and yet in reality how many of our friends actually suffer today? (some people do, I am asking about your personal average here). The problem with those personal, media-fed interpretations is actually political. Internet Addiction is very often combined with conversations about online safety. I know that at first, it seems like a very irrelevant connection because it should be. But that’s not the case. Not many average web users know that authorities of many countries have managed to restrict access to the Internet under the excuse of safe Internet practice (without defining what “safe” really means).
Midway on the scale, you will find the official definitions by APA and WHO with pretty specific criteria. Those definitions are new and problematic (see below) but at least attempt to define the concept of Internet Addiction. Acknowledging Internet Addiction as a mental health condition paves the way to open conversations about the negative impact of compulsive Internet use. It helps mental health professionals prepare to support their patients. It justifies the funding of related research. It allows support for individuals who suffer from addictive behaviours. There is a problem with the term though. The diagnosis, if given, is based on a term which has not yet been confirmed and researched enough. In the history of APA’s DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – the Bible for mental health professionals) it is probably the first term of this kind). One which enters media and political discourse without the clause stated in the DSM that it still needs way more research to be confirmed. I repeat: it is NOT CONFIRMED. Labels are helpful but can also be political. Rumour has it, I will put it gently, that some governments would prefer their citizens to stay offline and in separated networks so they have lobbied WHO to introduce the term. (I am yet to see a government happy for its citizens to have access to free information, education and collective thinking). Of course, we will never know for certain. What we do know is that many mental health professionals and new startups are starting to make a brilliant amount of money on curing people of Internet Addiction – without a clear explanation of what it really is.
Finally, at the end of this spectrum, there is also common sense, which of course is very individual. When I asked my son what the term means to him his first reaction was to ask for clarification: “Internet is a bunch of tubes and cables so what do you really mean?” – my son is 13 and yet so many adults fail to ask that question. If you ask a counsellor, you will probably hear a description of a classic addiction (withdrawal symptoms, impact on daily life and obsessive thinking about the cause of addiction). But there is a problem with that application of addiction – a lot of forms of Internet use are actually pleasurable and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If the social web is the extension of who we are than it is perfectly OK to crave learning more, finding out more, connecting more, missing chats with friends etc. What I am saying is – the addiction treatment model does not help!
I do not think we know just yet what Internet Addiction is. I think we need to be really careful and specific when talking about Internet-related addictive behaviours and use those, not the general term. I am really glad to see the Wikipedia definition of the term finally listing different, more specific formats of addiction: gambling addiction, gaming addiction, communication addiction, VR addiction. I think we need to specify it even more and treat each and every single person experiencing addictive behaviours with very individual, tailored but also contextual support.
The behaviour itself is usually a function of something else going on in our lives. Games are full of elements of positive psychology – they make us happy, achieved, connected. They can also be really much more fun than a toxic boss and a boring job. Online gambling can be the extension of our offline gambling habits or a deeper unfulfilled need. Communication addiction can be a result of being abandoned, isolated, alone. And even this is not explicit enough. Because the place of the Internet in our lives is complex, it works together as an element of our reality – something happens online, affects our offline behaviour, we go back online, our habits online escalate, our online contacts respond one way or another, we react or not.
Internet Addiction as a term is problematic. For over 15 years of the Safe Internet Practice Day we have been talking about the impact of the Internet on us in purely negative terms without even considering checking the facts. We have been telling our children that screens are detrimental to their health when it is now proven to be a myth, not a scientific fact. We have been over-using the term addiction without really exploring the meaning of it. And the problem lies in overused, meaningless terms. Because we take those labels and label ourselves too – without any critical thinking.
The bottom line is this. As it is today we do not know what is the impact of the Internet on humanity. It is a complex issue and it needs to be researched contextually with as much objectivity and critical thinking as possible. It’s not enough to state that teens are affected by social media, because we know from good research already that some groups of teens (women, poorer or isolated individuals) suffer, while others thrive. What we need to do is dive into a good set of data with a very contextual set of neutral assumptions and questions. We need to focus on what is said and what is on the other side of the coin. Here is a recent example from Sonia Livingstone’s research here in the UK:
- “Nearly half of parents (46%) and teens (44%) describe themselves as ‘addicted’ to their mobile device; also, a third of teens (35%) and two-thirds of parents (63%) think the other is ‘addicted’ too.
- Half of teens (54%) and parents (51%) say they get distracted by mobile devices at least once a day, and 72% of parents say their teen gets distracted.
- Screen time conflicts are common in today’s families with children – ranking as the third most common source of conflict for parents after chores/helping around the house and bedtime/sleep, and ranking fourth for teens (after chores, sleep and homework conflicts).
Yet 86% of parents say their teen’s use of mobile devices has not harmed or has even helped their relationship; and 97% of teens say the same of their parents’ mobile use. Further, most UK families do not think mobile devices disrupt meal times, most parents allow their teens their privacy online, and most are optimistic about the benefits. “
Even though we are not technically addicted, we think we are. Because the term was so overused for more than a decade. So how do we start to approach this topic with more care? Here is my personal suggestion. Next time that red dot of notifications on your screen calls for you stop for a second and think about the following:
- How does it make me feel? Am I addicted or do I want to know if my friends are OK, have an opinion about my recent post, plan to go out to a nice local event?
- Do I need to do it now or can I do it later? Which is better for me?
- Why do I rush to check it out? Is it because I have time and want to feel connected with other people online? Is it because I am busy at work but also bored? Is it because I am ill and stuck at home? Is it because I have time and I feel lonely?
- Is it OK to feel this way with those motivations? I suspect you will judge yourself, but think about it carefully – is it really bad to seek contact with your friends? Is it really affecting your work or supporting it?
- What is the actual impact on your health and on your relationships? Are you thriving, functioning or struggling?
When I see the red notification dot I know my friends are active and I can check in with them in the evening or at lunch, or I simply have something to do for a client. I plan my day work well to allow myself for online check in and keep an eye on the time I spent online. Usually I spend so much time online for work that I do not rush to check notifications anyway – I treasure the time off screen. But I also love to chat to my friends and love the feeling of online connection, so I make time for it. It does not affect my health or work or life.
Think about it carefully. Question what you read or what you are told on the topic. Next time you say or even think that you are addicted to something related to the Internet I urge to review it carefully in the context of what makes you happy and what impact it has on your health and social connections. Do not overuse the “addiction” – reserve it for the very few who really struggle because their lives are falling apart. Yours probably is not, you might just need to tweak your habits or accept that watching a YouTube movie is meaningful for you right now. And that’s OK.
In the meantime there are a few wonderful people out there who are pushing for the change in the actual Internet Addiction diagnosis and that change is coming. So we will know more soon enough. For now, we just need to look out for each other and keep calm. There is a lot online to read, learn, do and enjoy and that’s perfectly fine. We are actually quite OK.
Good luck and let me know how you feel about Internet Addiction.
Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash