Is internet addiction real?

My work involves a lot of social media, and I find myself checking Facebook and Twitter every ten to twenty minutes without exception. If I don’t check, I experience some sense of isolation and anxiety. Even as I’m writing this article I’m simultaneously scrolling through Instagram pictures, opening up tabs researching the human need for connection, answering emails and, yes, checking Facebook again. Suffice to say I have a problem… don’t I?

With so many things demanding my attention, I find my concentration span is woefully short these days – I would argue that as information becomes increasingly accessible and swamps the internet, so, paradoxically, does it become inaccessible simply due to the overwhelming amount of content available on any given topic. So how do we break through ‘information and media’ obsessions and hold our consumer’s attention? I’m not sure. As for internet addiction – is it actually real?

To illustrate, here is an embarrassing snippet of five minutes in my brain.

“Oooh, there’s a news headline about Facebook’s new ‘listening functionality’…  that sounds interesting. Might just have a quick read. No! Have other things to do. Should check emails though. Forgot to reply to that one. Maybe will check Twitter just to see if there’s anything trending I can use for GoBundu. Cape Town’s the number one city again! Perfect. Can use that for my current article, but will need to do some research. Might just pop onto Buzzfeed. There’s a new quiz! Which dog am I? Well that’s entirely irrelevant. But maybe just a quick look. Oh I’m a spaniel! Last night’s Fargo episode was so interesting. I want to research more about why we pick up more shades of green than any other colour. What makes a good predator and why did we evolve like this? Is the shape of a shell in any way connected to the shape of an eye? Also, why am I tagged in that picture? I look horrendous.”

It just goes to show that I, like most people of my generation, am entirely at the mercy of the internet and its information overload. And I do have a social media problem, yes. Is there such thing as Facebook therapy?

Back on Twitter. Do I want a pair of Frieda Kahlo socks? I kind of do. But again, that’s entirely beside the point. The nature of addiction is fascinating to unpack. The brain has always been a mesmerising world for me. It’s strange really that we don’t know more about it. The information centre at the centre of self – the very thing that defines us remains largely enigmatic.

The idea of internet addiction is highly controversial – a question that has more than one learned scholar raising bushy eyebrows in marked scepticism. Despite a lack of research and a steady stream of thought that suggests this new ‘addiction’ is just another fad designed to opportunistically target and extract funds from an already existing market of worried, internet-reliant individuals, there are rumours that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental health Disorders (DSM-V) is, in fact, considering including Internet Use Disorder (IUD) as a real mental health disorder. Is this really merited? Most experts argue no.

Let’s start by defining the term ‘addiction.’ Medilexicon defines it as ‘Habitual psychological or physiologic dependence on a substance or practice that is beyond voluntary control.’ And what drives our addictions? The pursuit of pleasure. We operate according to a ‘reward pathway’ – when we successfully act in a way which fulfils a need/ desire, dopamine is released into the nucleus accumbens, which induces a feeling of pleasure.  Of course, we want a repeat of this pleasurable sensation, so we perform the same actions again in pursuit of the same reward. Ever heard of Pavlov’s slobbering dogs and the idea of conditioned learning? Yes, my friends, we’re exactly the same. Research shows that addiction often follows the same brain pathways controlling learning and memory – makes sense doesn’t it?

Allen Francis, in his article for Psychology Today, compares internet addiction to drug addiction. When you experience drug addiction, you experience the following:

  • Your tolerance to the drug grows – you need more of it to feel the same level of reaction
  • You experience withdrawal when you try to stop
  • You use something compulsively even when it costs exorbitant amounts (in terms of your health, wealth and happiness) and no longer brings you pleasure

A habit or using something recreationally is very different to an addiction, whereby you cannot stop a behaviour and the element of choice is entirely eliminated. IUD will potentially be classified as a ‘Behavioural Addiction’ – but this category, in itself, is inherently controversial. Surely any behaviour has the potential to be classified as an addiction? I have three cups of coffee in the morning before I feel vaguely human, so why isn’t caffeine addiction on the list? Where do we draw the line? The distinction between recreational use and addiction is difficult to define. Yes, I spend a lot of time on the internet, but does my usage of it feel compulsive, out of control, harmful or unpleasant? No. I would argue that we’re currently living in the ‘self-diagnosis and label everyone’ era. If you haven’t got some sort of medical disorder, what are you doing wrong?

Then again, when you consider obsessive gamers stuck in their basements, never seeing the sunshine, hardly eating or sleeping and no longer able to derive any pleasure or success from the activity they’re engaged in, you have to wonder whether IUD is such a farce after all. But these are the exceptions to the rule – for most of us, our pleasure in and obsession with the internet can yield positive results in the form of increased productivity (this point is, for me, rather debateable), knowledge and happiness.

According to the American Psychological Organisation, the majority of people vulnerable to ‘IUD’ are primarily concerned with online sexual encounters, in the form of chat rooms and pornography. Greenfield’s 1998 study of 18,000 internet users found 5.7% of individuals meeting the ‘criteria for compulsive internet use.’ The majority of these people were obsessed with pornography, chat rooms and online shopping. For most individuals, the internet was a means of mood-altering emotional escapism. People who were classified as ‘addicts’ reported feeling a ‘loss of control and boundaries.’ Men and women ‘addicts’ also reported different types of internet use, with women favouring ‘sexually-oriented chat rooms’ and men preferring pornography. One of the pertinent questions arising from this study was whether these people are addicted to the internet or to sex and emotional connections.

According to Forbes, some research claims that people with IUD experience similar changes in their brains to individuals engaged in addictive substance abuse. Areas affected include those ‘controlling attention span, executive control and emotional processing.’ Can the internet have the same effect on us as cocaine and heroin? Perhaps, as certain studies show similar patterns of impaired dopamine receptors, impacting the ‘reward pathway’ previously outlined.

So how do we treat IUD sufferers? Forbes suggests cognitive behaviour therapy, but more research will have to be conducted.

Honestly, internet addiction is still a mystery at this point, with further research being essential in order to ascertain whether it can be classified as a behavioural addiction and what defines a behavioural addiction in the first place. For now, I shall embrace my goldfish attention span and choose to see my frantic tab opening and Facebook checking as recreational and, ahem, ‘good for my productivity.’  As digital marketers, our challenge is to find a way to engage our readers’ attention spans in a lasting and real way, and the only way to do that is to produce kick-ass content that tells a story and is emotionally powerful. Simple, right?

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