The question of whether or not Internet Addiction Disorder should be recognised by the DSM as a mental disorder is complex. The Internet is an elusive entity, consisting of many types of media and used in a variety of ways. It blurs boundaries between countries, industries and cultures. Paradoxically, it can be both good and bad. It is therefore difficult to define it as some "thing" a person can become addicted to. It is even harder to understand it when thinking about substance abuse, since there is no chemical element involved (Young, 2004). Yet, instances of Internet addiction has been recorded and researched in various countries, including Korea, China and the USA. Problematic behaviours and negative consequences have been linked to what some choose to label Problematic Internet Use (Hechanova & Czincz, 2009). This paper will explore the two arguments against and for Internet Addiction. It will briefly look at the Internet as a global phenomenon predicted to grow in capacity, making it an inevitable part of our future. This will lead to the conclusion that Internet Addiction Disorder should be included in the upcoming DSM so that we can come to a more comprehensive, globally shared understanding of what it is and start working on effective treatments.
Possibly the most relevant argument against the inclusion of Internet Addiction Disorder into the DSM is the lack of research that has been done on the topic (Young & Rogers, 1998). Because the Internet is still a recent phenomenon that is gaining new users daily, the potential for it to have negative consequences has not thoroughly been researched. The youthful nature of the Internet also means that there is a lack of longitudinal studies. This suggests that we are only aware of the (harmful) behaviour of new users (Beard & Wolf, 2001). Additionally, research has not managed to determine what it is exactly (of/in the Internet) that people become dependent on and that leads to negative effects (Beard & Wolf, 2001). Hechanova and Czincz explore the differences between interactive activity and information -gathering functions (2009). Where information gathering can be a large part of some people's occupation and not necessarily contribute to problematic Internet use, interactive activities have more potential to cause harm. Block lists three subtypes of Internet addiction: excessive online gaming, sexual preoccupations and social messaging (email, text, social media messaging etc.), all of which are interactive by nature (2008). More research is needed to better understand these differences and identify what other online activities can be harmful.
The layered nature of the Internet and the variety of things it is used for make it inaccurate to claim that a person becomes addicted to the Internet as a collective entity. This also features in the arguments against its inclusion in the DSM as people argue that the Internet is not like other chemical substances that are physically addictive (Young, 2004). Since there is no physical withdrawal from the Internet, psychiatrists consider it a behavioural addiction or as a part of the Impulse Control Disorder (Hechanova & Czincz, 2009). The proposed criteria for Internet Addiction Disorder do include symptoms like dependence, tolerance and withdrawal, making it a worthy contestant for addiction, behavioural or otherwise (Beard & Wolf, 2001). Many other, similar, actions have been labeled as addiction and accepted by many. Gambling, gaming, overeating and television watching all share attributes with the proposed criteria for Internet Addiction. These include feelings of preoccupation, increasing amounts of time spent on it, unsuccessful efforts to abstain, changes in mood as well as negative consequences to ones personal and private life (Young, 2004).
The Internet also offers people almost endless opportunities to escape from ones reality. It shares this attribute with many other addictions and also contributes to the large comorbidity rate between it and disorders like depression and anxiety (Young, 2004). An increase in Internet use is associated with increased level of depression (Young & Rogers, 1998). This comorbidity mirrors similar relationships between more conventional and accepted types of substance abuse and mood disorders. It is especially the anonymity offered by the Internet's virtual world that affords people a platform to be social without dealing with the usual anxiety they might experience in real-life situations. Although this can be a relief, sustained use can have negative results (Young & Rogers, 1998).
Internet addiction can also have more immediate and harmful effects on individuals and society. Block mentions several cases in Korea where people have been physically harmed and links them to excessive Internet use (2008). Young emphasises scenarios that are vulnerable to problematic Internet use: romantic relationships, professional environments and student environments (2004). Online pornography, virtual sex, cybersex chat sites and the like allow people in existing relationships to engage sexually with strangers without the usual risk of confrontation. This frequently wreaks havoc on romantic relationships. Professionals and students alike become obsessed with Internet use and often neglect their responsibilities as a result. People have lost their jobs and students have failed their courses because of problematic Internet use (Young, 2004). The latter two environments are particularly delicate with regards to Internet use, since the Internet plays an integral part in it. Professions are growing more and more dependent on the Internet to function. Similarly, schools and universities depend on the Internet for most of their administrative and educational processes. More and more devices are designed to support Internet access and the number of users is predicted to grow as the Internet spreads across the globe (Bread & Wolf, 2001). It is therefore important that the effect it has on individuals and communities is better understood and that a successful treatment is developed for those it affects negatively.
An important aim of diagnostic classification is to develop a universal discourse for psychologists and psychiatrists. If we have a shared way of understanding a problem, we can promote research and develop treatments (Mezey & Robbins, 2001). It also helps the individual experiencing mental distress to feel less alienated from society because s/he learns that there are others who share in the turmoil. In the case of post-traumatic stress disorder, people diagnosed with the disorder often feel a sense of relief as they free themselves from self-blame and guilt (Mezey & Robins, 2001). The Internet has the potential to cause harm for individuals and society. It is a powerful and growing phenomenon that is gaining influence worldwide. More and more institutions and cultures are becoming dependent on it to function, making more people vulnerable to become addicted to it. We must invest in research to better understand what exactly it is in/of the Internet that makes it addictive. Only by recognising it as a mental disorder will we achieve this and begin the journey towards developing a successful treatment. The Internet has amazing potential to facilitate the evolution of man-kind. It offers a platform without boundaries where people can connect and learn to live as a unified community. If we identify the attributes of the Internet that is harmful and develop a proper treatment, we can learn to live in harmony with the Internet and all its benefits.
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Czincz, J., Hechanova, R. (2009). Internet Addiction: Debating the Diagnosis. [Electronic Version]. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 27, 257-272.
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