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Hyping Internet Addiction
Rebecca Goldin Ph.D, November 16, 2006
The Washington Post creates a bigger problem than those doing the research

No doubt there are people who use the Internet “excessively.” After all, if you miss work and ignore your kids because you’re online, and you try but fail to reduce Internet use, then you obviously have a problem. A recent study conducted by faculty at the Stanford University School of Medicine tried to discover just the extent of excessive internet use, and to judge from the Washington Post’s report on the study – “Caught in the Web” (“More People Say Heavy Internet Use Is Disrupting Their Lives, and Medical Experts Are Paying Attention.”) – the conclusions were alarming.

To put a human face on the data, the Post begins its story with a case-study of a 47-year old single mom, who spent too much time looking for a boyfriend online and ignored her daughters’ pleas for attention. The story then discussed the question of whether excessive use is just a “disorder” or whether it is a true addiction, quoting a token skeptic, Jonathan Bishop, who said the internet is just an “environment” – and "you can't be addicted to the environment” (Bishop has done research on online communities but he is not a mental health specialist).

But it is clear from the get go that the Internet causes problems, and to back up the claim, the Post cites some numbers from the study.

  • About 6% of respondents reported that "their relationships suffered as a result of excessive Internet use."
  • About 9% attempted to conceal "nonessential Internet use."
  • Nearly 4% reported feeling "preoccupied by the Internet when offline."
  • About 8% said they used the Internet as a way to escape problems
  • Almost 14% reported they "found it hard to stay away from the Internet for several days at a time."

The average number of hours spent on line, according to the Post, is 3.5 hours per day, per person. All of which seems troubling – until, that is, you take a closer look at the numbers. While the figures cited by the Post are correct, the limited selection seriously compromised the meaning of the study.

The Stanford researchers came up with four different sets of diagnostic criteria to identify problematic Internet use. The least strict criteria resulted in 0.7% of the surveyed respondents being diagnosed with a problem, and there were even lower rates for the other sets of criteria.

The problem with the Post’s article lies in part with citing the statistics as if they stand on their own. For example, 13.7% of respondents found it hard to stay away from the Internet for a few days. Is that really a problem? Would we be worrying about “phone addiction” if we found that most of us find it hard to stay away from the phone for a few days?

Similarly, 8.2% used the Internet to escape problems or deal with a bad mood. Would we worry about a “walk the dog addiction” if we found that people walk their dogs when angry or depressed?

Are 3.5 hours of internet use per day an indication that people are going overboard, or that our work, our bills, our shopping, our trip planning, and our newspapers are now on line? Is the Internet bad or is it just an integral part of how we communicate and think? It hardly seems reasonable to cite these figures in the context of more crippling issues, including not being able to limit internet use when desiring to, or finding one’s personal relationships impaired due to internet use.

The point of the Stanford study is not to say that individual behaviors are alarming, but rather a combination of many of them may indicate a problem. For the loosest diagnosis of a problem, a survey respondent had to exhibit three symptoms: “that Internet use interfered with relationships; that the respondent be preoccupied with the Internet when offline; and, have either tried unsuccessfully to cut down on Internet use, or stayed online longer than intended ‘often’ or ‘very often’[out of ‘very often, often, sometimes, rarely, or never’].”

In the context of an entire article describing all the bad, addictive, internet behavior out there, the Washington Post neglected to mention the positives: of those reporting trying to cut back on internet use, 93.8% were successful. Only .7% of respondents satisfy the weakest diagnostic criteria for an internet problem.

Lastly, the woman whose story frames the whole article found a boyfriend (perhaps on line) and successfully cut back on her own internet use, apparently no longer browsing the dating sites.