- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 4, 2007

There is a fine line between using the Internet to look up a few facts, socialize or play some games and being obsessed with or addicted to it, says Kent Norman, associate professor of psychology at the University of Maryland in College Park.

“You don’t have to worry about being an Internet addict if you’re spending some time on the Internet. It is a clinical addiction when it becomes totally consuming and you’re losing your job, your friends and family and your health because of it,” says Mr. Norman, who holds a doctorate in experimental psychology.

Internet addiction disorder does not exist as an official category, like addiction to food, drugs or alcohol, but as a subset of behavioral addictions of constantly wanting to engage in certain behaviors, Mr. Norman says.

“This behavior is maladaptive or pathological because of the symptoms it generates,” he says. “If somebody is addicted to a particular behavior, it takes control over their lives.”

Whether or not Internet addiction disorder should be considered a mental disorder in a separate diagnostic category is up for debate. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-IV, published by the American Psychiatric Association, does not include Internet addiction disorder in the list of categories and criteria for diagnosing mental disorders.

The research that has been done so far on Internet addiction disorder — a term proposed about 10 years ago — is not based on solid empirical evidence that supports the disorder as being unique and valid, says John Grohol, publisher of Psychcentral.com, an educational Web site based in Boston that focuses on mental health issues. He is a member of the American Psychological Association (APA), headquartered in Northeast.

“It’s an adjustment disorder,” says Mr. Grohol, who holds a doctorate in psychology. “The Internet is a new technology. It takes people time to acclimate to new technologies.”

The behaviors associated with Internet addiction disorder will lessen as Internet users acclimate to the technology and learn to put their use of it in perspective, Mr. Grohol says.

“As they learn how it fits in their lives, most people tend to taper off their online time,” he says. “I don’t disagree that there [is] a set of people out there who spend too much time online. It’s a problematic behavior, but it shouldn’t be a unique diagnostic behavior.”

Giving the behavior a label is premature when it is not clear exactly what is involved with Internet addiction disorder, says David Greenfield, APA member and director of the Center for Internet Behavior, a division of the Healing Center LLC in West Hartford, Conn. The center provides consulting, training and research on the negative behaviors that may result from Internet abuse and addiction.

“In a sense, the Internet is a new form of mood-altering behavior,” says Mr. Greenfield, who holds a doctorate in psychology. He is assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and author of “Virtual Addiction: Help for Netheads, Cyberfreaks, and Those Who Love Them.”

The Internet can cause a sense of loss of time and place and disassociation from reality, Mr. Greenfield says.

“There’s always another link, a place to go,” he says. “There’s a degree of uncertainty, variability and unpredictability. It compels people to continue the behavior over and over.”

Internet addiction disorder clearly is a type of addiction comparable to other types of addiction, says Kimberly Young, director of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery, a resource in Bradford, Pa., for assessing and treating Internet addiction disorders. She is the author of “Caught in the Net: How to Recognize the Signs of Internet Addiction — and a Winning Strategy for Recovery.”

Ms. Young used the DSM-IV to define Internet addiction disorder in the mid-1990s when she became aware of the problem and decided to research it further, she says. The list of symptoms she used are generic for any addiction, she says.

Internet addiction disorder, Ms. Young says, is a loss of impulse control in which the user is preoccupied with using the Internet, attempts to lie or conceal the use of it, goes into withdrawal when not using it, and uses it as a form of escape and at the harm of other life activities, including work, school and social relationships.

“It’s not a hobby. It’s not the computer programmer using it for 40 hours of work,” says Ms. Young, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology. “It’s neglecting other aspects of life just to surf.”

The qualities that make an Internet user prone to addiction include loneliness, social skill problems, clinical depression, anxiety disorders and multiple addictions, Ms. Young says.

The list of symptoms associated with Internet addiction disorder is based on taking symptoms from another disorder, changing a few words and identifying a new disorder, Mr. Grohol says.

“The problem with this is so many researchers took the list of symptoms, and they didn’t independently verify that these are valid,” he says.

Internet users can go overboard with their use, but whether they have a disorder is something for psychologists and psychiatrists to decide, says David Alan Grier, associate professor of international science and technology policy and international affairs at George Washington University in Northwest. He is associate dean of academic affairs.

“It is clear that people get sucked into it,” says Mr. Grier, who holds a doctorate in mathematical statistics. “It’s a combination of what the technology can do for you … and to get that, you have to pay attention.”

The Internet offers a promise of providing information or a social connection with other people, Mr. Grier says. Getting to that promise requires intense concentration and precision, such as when typing in a Web address or following a set of commands, he says.

Mr. Grohol says he expects that in 10 to 15 years, the debate on Internet addiction will fade away.

“People need to get acclimated, used to using the Internet,” he says.

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