Note: For the record, I think Dr. Grohol is simply wrong about this one. I have some reservations about calling the problem "internet addiction" because I think the behavior is more a complusion than an addiction per se, but make no mistake about it: The problem is real and increasing rapidly as the internet becomes more accessible. For more information, see Internet 'Addictions'.

Caught in the Web
August 11, 2004
by Shane Schick

Internet addiction may or may not be real, but that's not worrying the enterprise.

People in the military probably thought they'd heard every excuse possible for getting out of service. Some would fake an injury. Others might refuse as conscientious objectors. Mental illness is not uncommon either, but blaming the Internet has to win points for originality.

According to an international news report, a number of Finnish conscripts have been excused before their full term ended because they couldn't handle the time away from the Web. It should be noted that the compulsory length of time these young men are required to spend in the forces is six months. If less than a year offline puts them into such a state, they must be Internet addicts. Right?

The truth is that no one really knows, despite a growing branch of psychological literature around Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD). Although there are a number of firms offering to treat this problem, most likely it is merely a branch of a more comprehensive counseling service. The most authoritative (and by that I mean skeptical) resource I've found online is an article by a psychologist named Dr. John M. Grohol, who has been updating his research on the subject since 1999. Grohol points out that most of the information around IAD is based upon a few scant surveys, which are often heavily skewed towards white men and fail to take into account pre-existing medical disorders. IAD, he argues, is simply something the mental health profession has coined in order to give itself something new to talk about.

"For most people with 'Internet addiction,' they are likely newcomers to the Internet," he writes. "They are going through the first stage of acclimating themselves to a new environment -- by fully immersing themselves in it. Since this environment is so much larger than anything we've ever seen before, some people get 'stuck' in the acclimation ( or enchantment) stage for a longer period of time than is typical for acclimating to new technologies."

There's some truth in this. People I know who don't have office jobs often tell me how quickly they've become "addicted" to their home PC and spend more than the usual amount of time in chat rooms. That's because it's not the Internet itself that's addictive, but the behaviour of socializing in what some consider a more safe environment.

In the Finnish military's case, however, Grohol's theory would appear not to apply. Doctors there concluded the conscripts stayed up all night playing games and didn't have any friends. The Internet was a place to escape, not to interact. That also has little to do with the technology and much more to do with the mental health issues of those behind the keyboard.

Theorized disorders like IAD are emerging at a time when IT users are being criticized (and increasingly monitored) by employers who blame their perceived lack of productivity on the amount of time they spend managing e-mail and surfing the Web. These same firms are moving more and more functions onto the Internet, and implementing collaboration and knowledge management software to even the most entry-level employees. The marketing of these sorts of tools frequently makes light use of the word "addiction" in an oddly positive way -- as though it's wonderful to find something so useful we simply can't do without it. You tell me who's losing it.