Internet Addiction: Real Problem or Much Ado about Nothing?

Last week, Reuters ran a story about the "growing problem of Internet addiction" that was picked up by CCN and other major news outlets. You can read that article here.

It quickly spawned follow-ups, such as AP's survey the next day showing that half of workers who use the Internet at work would rather give up their morning coffee than lose their Web surfing privileges. That one's here.

It's not a new issue; concerns over "Internet addiction" have been in the news intermittently since the early 90s, when commercial ISPs started offering access to the public at affordable prices. The spector of a generation hooked on getting their computer "fix" has been the subject of a few sci-fi books and movies.

"Addiction" is a popular buzzword these days: in addition to drug and alcohol addicts, we now have gambling addicts and sex addicts. Those who overeat are food addicts; those who spend too much money are shopping addicts, those who lose their tempers are anger addicts. Back in the olden days, before newspeak took over the language, addiction was a very real medical condition. People who are addicted to opiates or alcohol or nicotine or even caffeine go through measurable, painful, sometimes life-threatening physical withdrawal symptoms.

Obsessive or compulsive behavior does not equal addiction. Simply engaging in an activity "too much" does not make one an addict. Yet we have doctors like the one quoted in the Reuters article - people who are supposed to be trained in the difference between physiological and psychological manifestations - saying that the Internet may promote "addictive behaviors."

Why the rush to label all undesirable behavior as a disease? My theory is that doing so benefits both doctor and "patient." If the person engaging in the behavior can pass it off as a disease or addiction, that relieves him/her of the responsibility for changing that behavior. The addict can't just quit cold turkey; that's too hard. He/she needs help. Enter the doctors who cater to these pseudo addicts. If it's a disease, their services are required - at a hefty price, of course. We all expect "healthcare" services to cost a bundle. And of course, if we can get it official recognized as a disease, maybe the insurance companies will pay for it.

I guess you can tell I'm not too impressed with the whole "Internet addiction" crisis. Sure, some people spend way too much time online. Some folks might say I'm one of them. I make my living writing, mostly for online publications, so I'm at the computer between six and ten hours a day. I have dozens of friends with whom I've been communicating online on a daily or weekly basis for over a decade, some of whom I still haven't ever met in person. Even for keeping in touch with my "real world" friends and family, most of the time I prefer to zap off an email rather than picking up the phone (and thus risking bothering someone in the middle of something).

But am I "addicted?" I don't think so. If I have to be in a place where there's no Internet access, I miss the convenience of being "connected" but I don't break out in sweats or get excruciating headaches or start to shake uncontrollably. Far from interfering with my "real life," the Internet has enabled me to participate more fully in it - I find out about community events and neighborhood meetings that I probably wouldn't attend otherwise, I obtain consulting gigs and speaking engagements. My cousins and I had drifted out of touch for years until everyone got Internet access; now we keep each other apprised of what's going on in our lives and coordinate, via email, monthly lunch get-togethers.

Sure, the Internet can be used for nefarious purposes, too. There are predators who hang out in chatrooms to look for victims. There are also predators who hang out in parks for that purpose. The CNN article implies that the Internet causes divorces. Doesn't it seem more likely that the people who engage in "online sexually compulsive behaviors" probably aren't/weren't models of marital fidelity offline, either? Ah, but it's so much more convenient to be able to protest that "the Internet made me do it."

The article paints a dire picture: sleep deprived addicts suffering from dry eyes and carpal tunnel syndrome who get "cybershakes," characterized by typing motions of the fingers when not at the computer. It's enough to make you want to go out and pass a Constitutional amendment enacting a new Prohibition, this one on Internet Service Providers. I can just imagine the black market that would spring up, with shifty-eyed techies standing on street corners, offering surreptitious connections to underground wireless networks for cash.

What the addiction proponents seem to ignore is the difference between addiction and habituation. Hanging out on the 'Net can become a habit that's hard to break. So can watching TV, playing the guitar, or talking on the phone. Are those addictions, too? Will we soon be seeing meetings of Unlimited Minutes Anonymous? Hmmm ... one might even those who feel compelled to label any and everything an addiction are Addiction addicts.

Tell me what you think. Am I way off base here? Am I just an Internet addict who's deep in denial?

Or is the issue being hyped by both misguided helper types and those who stand to profit from turning excessive 'Net surfing into a dire disease?

Do you know anyone who suffers from "cybershakes"? Do you get withdrawal symptoms if you're deprived of your monitor and keyboard? Is the Internet damaging your real world relationships, destroying your marriage, turning you into a compulsive cybersex fiend?