Considering the content of my last post–in which I talked about the positive and negative emotions I felt being forcefully disconnected from the Internet–it wouldn’t be surprising if at least a few of my readers thought that it sounded like a case of Internet addiction. So, before I allow that thought to go any further, I want to make this very clear: I do not have, nor have I ever had, an Internet addiction, and neither do you.
I can say this statement with such conviction because, to the best of my knowledge, such a condition does not exist. Of course, this isn’t to say everyone’s interaction with the Internet is perfectly healthy or even benign; Rather, it is to say that the term addiction, which seems to get bandied around quite a bit these days, is a very specific term meant for a very specific situation, and my usage of the Internet is not one of those situations.
So… Just what is addiction?
The term addiction refers to one’s unhealthy physiological dependance on a substance. Whether this dependance be on heroin, alcohol, caffeine, or something else entirely, one can only be said to be addicted to the substance in question if they satisfy the following three criteria:
1) Tolerance. In someone who is addicted to a substance, there must be a clear and increasing tolerance to the substance. This means that, to be said to be addicted to something, one’s body must begin to grow accustom to the substance as it gets used more often. This leads one to require a continuously increasing amount of the substance to achieve the same effect, whether positive or negative.
2) Withdraw. In someone who is addicted to a substance, physical withdraw symptoms must be present when one lacks the substance. These symptoms, which can range from cravings and emotional changes to seizures and death, are always worse than the use of the substance. This often encourages the person to continue using the substance, even if the desired effect has long since faded away.
3) Detrimental. Finally, the use of or means of acquiring that substance must have a clear detrimental impact on one’s physical, emotional, or social well-being. While this may seem like common sense given the negative connotations associated with the term addiction, it is important make this explicit as it often separates healthy actions and activities from far less healthy ones.
Assuming that all three of these conditions are met, it can be said that the person is addicted to the substance that they are using. If this is the case, the person in question more than likely will require treatment. However, if a single one of these isn’t met, the person is deemed not to be addicted to the substance. In these cases, the person in question may still request treatment to help meet their own personal goals regarding the substance, but in general, no clinical intervention is needed.
The problem with the very concept of Internet addictions is that, in using the Internet, there is little, if any, physical stimulation. In all other addictions, this physical stimulation is present and, even within the definition of addiction itself, needed. However, should we neglect this focus on the physical symptoms and consequences of addiction, the case for an addiction to the Internet doesn’t get much better.
As I mentioned above, for someone to be addicted to something, there must be a withdraw reaction from the stimulus being removed suddenly. Considering how much I used the Internet prior to my disconnection and considering how suddenly I was removed from the Internet, one would expect, should I have an addiction to the Internet, that I would have rather severe withdraw symptoms. This, however, was simply not the case. While I did feel some negative emotions, including loneliness, boredom, anger, and confusion, these emotions were not the cause of some physical change in my body (which in addictions, it would be). Rather, these negative emotions were a completely normal and natural reaction to a situation that had a large impact on my daily routine. Because of this, I would argue that it would have been considerably more unhealthy for me to have not felt these emotions, as this would indicate that, prior to my disconnection, I was not gaining anything from my routine as I had it.
Further, in order to have an addiction to the Internet, one would have to gain a tolerance to the Internet over time. But, how exactly does one develop a tolerance to the Internet? The simple answer, really, is that you can’t. This means that, as you use the Internet, your desire and self-reported need to use the Internet does not increase as a function of itself. Rather, any increase in your need and desire to use the Internet arises solely from outside sources, such as enjoyment of games, requirements of work or school, or desire to learn new information.
Of course, all of this isn’t to say that there aren’t people who could benefit from using the Internet less. In fact, I would argue that I would be one such person. However, in these cases, the main problem with the Internet is not that the person is addicted to it, but rather that the person has developed a bad habit of turning to the Internet for distraction or entertainment, and this has gotten out of hand. While this could still require treatment, to call this addiction, and to treat it as such, would be reckless and potentially dangerous.