11 million Net addicts? Come on!

Is there really anything to "Net addiction," or are complusive gamblers, shoppers and sex fiends just doing their thing online?

By Janelle Brown
Published August 24, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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It's time for the annual Internet addiction scare.

Each August, the American Psychological Association convenes. And every year since 1996, someone has stood up to present findings that the Internet is dangerous and addictive. Most years, this "someone" has been Dr. Kimberly Young, a one-woman Internet addiction task force and the psychologist behind the Center for Online Addiction. This year, the study was presented by Dr. David Greenfield, a therapist and researcher who recently conducted an Internet addiction survey on ABCNews.com, and who also runs an online addiction clinic.


His thesis? 11 million Internet users -- or 5.7 percent of all people online -- are addicted to the Net.

As Greenfield told ABCNews, which has quite happily given this presumed addiction lots of press: "Marriages are being disrupted, kids are getting into trouble, people are committing illegal acts, people are spending too much money. As someone who treats patients, I see it."

Greenfield's survey -- which ran on the ABCNews.com site last August as part of that news organization's coverage of last year's annual Internet addiction hype -- is a variation on an old gambling addiction survey. The 36-question survey asks if users head online to "escape" from problems, if they have problems cutting back on their usage, if they use the Net for sex or intimacy, or if their families get upset at them for spending so much time online. A "yes" answer to half the questions equals addiction. An admittedly self-selected group of 17,251 people responded to the survey; 990 of those were then classified as "addicts," totaling 5.7 percent of the survey.


One of the goals of those on the Net-addiction bandwagon is to get the "illness" accepted as a psychological disorder, justifying more funding and treatment; detractors, however, point out that Net-addiction hype seems to have more to do with hysteria about a new medium than actual problems. There is, for example, no "TV addiction" in the psychological canon, despite the far more widespread use of that medium.

After all, the Internet isn't an addictive activity like gambling or sex or shopping; it's a medium that leads you to other activities -- like gambling or sex or shopping. I'm no psychologist, but I'd venture to guess that gambling and sex and shopping are the problems for those "addicts," rather than the digital connections or the browser window that offer surfers access to those activities. And perhaps some people spend excessive amounts of time online because they lack something -- fulfillment? -- in their everyday lives that leads them to escapism online.

This hypothesis is evident in the kind of questions in Greenfield's survey, which includes: using the Internet to escape from problems or relieve a bad mood, feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety or depression; committing illegal acts related to Internet use; very explicit sexual discussions or masturbation; a need to seek greater sexually stimulating material in order to achieve the same result as previously. (Young even breaks down her "Internet addicts" into categories like "Compulsive Online Gamblers," "Cybersex addicts" and "Obsessive Online Traders.")


The survey also included plenty of questions that just about any Net professional would answer "yes" to. Do you spend an excessive amount of time on the Internet and vow not to do so the next day? Have you experienced repeated, unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back or stop using the Internet? Do you flirt with others online, using subtle sexual language? If these are the criteria, no wonder the study finds so many people are addicts.

All this is not to say that there aren't people who do have problems with compulsive Internet usage. For those sufferers, it's great that Young and Greenfield are offering help -- despite the blatant self-interest behind these doctors' surveys. But 11 million people? If those numbers are true, it's amazing that anyone gets any work done at all.

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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