After Fox News interviewed me last week, I have been inundated with requests to appear on radio and by print journalists from around the world. I just got off the phone, in fact, with a journalist in Iceland. These well-meaning folks have all asked me whether or not Internet Addiction is a real disorder, so I decided to write a blog addressing this issue.
Officially, Internet Addiction is not listed in the DSM-V (mental health disorder diagnostic manual), but does appear in the supplement section, which means that it is deemed worthy of further study. Certainly, for me, Internet addiction rose to the level of an impulse control disorder, and I engaged in my online computer games despite negative consequences that I was aware of, and in spite of a stated—to myself and others—desire to “cut down.” Yes, there are people for whom excessive screen-oriented behaviors rise to the level of an addiction. My gaming binges caused me to lose clients, friends, and relationships, but I still kept gaming. For me, like for many, if not most, people who suffer from Internet/tech-based addictions, I had underlying, un-diagnosed conditions: ADHD and anxiety. That is a big issue to consider; the Internet addiction is usually just the top layer of what is going on inside the individual. In almost all cases I have dealt with professionally, a significant mental-health issue lies underneath, waiting to be discovered. I have even had parents come to me for my advice on dealing with their video-game/Internet-addicted loved one, who then turned out, after a diagnostic evaluation, to have bipolar disorder. I state this because it shows the need for a thorough investigation when these issues arise. It becomes a disorder when the person cannot control impulses, and when that person engages in the behavior despite serious, and apparent, negative consequences.
Some significant signs to look for:
1. Emotional disturbances when the particular technology is removed from that person.
2. Disruptions in sleep often are the first signs that something is wrong (gamers, and problem smart phone users often “use” into the wee hours).
3. The person has turned away from family and friends, and activities that he or she once found enjoyable.
4. Engaging in the screen behavior in ever-increasing amounts.
5. Unable to cut back on the behavior, in spite of a stated desire to do just that.
Many other symptoms may present themselves. This is just the short list. We are really lacking in research, but studies so far suggest that somewhere between 7-10% of people who are regular users of technology have problems controlling and curtailing use. Please keep in mind, again, that problem users of technology almost always have underlying, usually un-diagnosed, issues. DO NOT LOOK AT THIS PROBLEM IN SIMPLISTIC TERMS.
Many people opine that the media have been making too much of this problem. I think we are making too little. We have young people who have grown up so accustomed to “living” through a screen that I fear the hard-wiring of their brains will make many of them poor in interpersonal skills. The brain has an invisible gardener that “prunes” neuronal networks that are unused and allows those that are used to flourish and grow. I worry that two decades down the road we will find a generation of screen-dependent people who severely lack interpersonal skills! We need to be much more aware of the long-term impact of raising screen-dependent children. Even more than that, however, is that people who excessively use the “screen” almost always have issues in their lives that they are not confronting. Excessive screen time is a signal that the person needs to pay more attention to what’s going on inside of him or her, and less to the screen!