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Internet Addiction: Is There Such a Thing?

Virginia Heffernan argues that “Internet addiction” is a made-up malady.

There are certain popular diversions — television, video games, the Internet — that we pursue so deliriously we end up hating ourselves for loving them. Others we brightly recast as the duties of citizenship: newspapers, public radio, sports.

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If you’re inclined to worry about your habits, you may have already stumbled onto a strange and influential self-evaluation questionnaire by Dr. Kimberly Young, a professor of business at St. Bonaventure University. Though Dr. Young developed the test in 1998, early in Web life, it still dominates the Google returns for “Internet addiction” and steadily stirs up anxiety.

Dr. Young told me she believes the Internet is addictive in part because it “allows us to create new personalities and use them to fulfill unmet psychological needs” — which sounds worrying except that art, entertainment and communications systems are designed explicitly to permit self-exploration and satisfy psychological needs.

The way the test loads the cultural dice in favor of reality over fantasy should make hearts sink. In the hierarchy of the test, any real-world task or interaction, no matter how mundane or tedious, is more important — and, worse, ought to be more fulfilling — than online fantasy, research or social life. “Do you neglect household chores to use the Internet?” one question asks, and undone laundry is later cited as a warning sign. “How often do you block out disturbing thoughts about your life with soothing thoughts of the Internet?” goes another question.

Heffernan notes the absurdity of this and wonders why it’s not universally applied.

In general, if a pastime is not classy, those who love it are “addicted.” Opera and poetry buffs are “passionate.”

Virtually all non-work activities have, at one time or another, been represented as craven and diseased. Opera obsession leads to delinquency in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 film “Diva”; an intense movie habit deepens the alienation of the hero of Walker Percy’s 1961 novel “The Moviegoer.”

Novels themselves, now the signature pursuit of the sound and literate mind, have also been considered toxic, as in the 1797 analysis, “Novel Reading, a Cause of Female Depravity.” The 18th-century worry about female literacy is not unlike the contemporary anxiety that Web use above all makes girls vulnerable to “predators”: “Without this poison instilled, as it were, into the blood, females in ordinary life would never have been so much the slaves of vice.” Taken together, these warnings against the very stuff that makes life worth living often seem either like veiled boasts (“I’m addicted to the symphony!”) or just absurd.

There’s obviously such a thing as addictive or compulsive behavior.  If you’re seriously neglecting key aspects of your life–your job, your spouse, your kids, your health–because you can’t pull yourself away from your recreational passion, then you’re an addict. But there’s no reason that spending leisure time surfing the Web should be considered worse than listening to music, reading books, bird watching, or gardening.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Another point is that the internet now enables many ordinary, necessary functions of “real” life. Email is obvious. Applying for jobs. Banking. Retail shopping. Many things which, perforce, were done in person or through outdated technologies, are now done on the internet.

    I’d comment more, but my wife just called me to share breakfast with her. :)

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  2. John Burgess says:

    Agreed. While theoretically possible, in the extreme conditions you state, I’ve yet to come across any credible report that shows a single case of true addiction. Heavy Internet use can certainly distract from other behaviors, or substitute for them, but ‘addiction’ isn’t at all the right classification.

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