Internet Addiction: A Mental Illness?


By Tony Kontzer

The tech world may not be paying much attention to the upcoming revision of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but maybe it should be.

Due out in 2013, DSM-5 (in other words, it's the fifth edition) is intended to refine the medical diagnoses of mental illness in its various forms in the hope of leading to more sensible insurance guidelines and more effective treatments.

What should make this noteworthy to anyone who develops, manages, purchases, thinks about, uses or otherwise depends on information technology on a regular basis is this: It appears that "Internet addiction" will probably not make the cut for this version. Whether this comes as good news or bad news, depending on your particular situation, is immaterial. What's fascinating is that the APA is accepting online comments on all of the proposed changes to DSM-5, meaning that questions about Internet addiction will be debated and considered.

That opening might mean that sufficient comment in support of Internet addiction could result in its inclusion in DSM-6, which probably won't be on the board for another 20 years or so.

Before I go any further, let me make it clear that I'm vehemently opposed to establishing "Internet addiction" as a valid mental disorder. In fact, I find the whole idea of classifying behavioral disorders to be a disturbing can of worms, as if the world of mental health coverage and claims isn't problematic enough already. But regardless of where one falls on this issue, it's hard to argue the validity of at least discussing how the increasingly ubiquitous nature of the Internet is changing human behavior.

I say this because I've watched helplessly as family members have seemingly surrendered their souls to the online paradigm. In one case it was the all-consuming World of Warcraft, a massive multi-player game that sucks the will to live in reality from many of its millions of devotees. In another case, it was the less obvious but perhaps more insidious world of topical message boards, those precursors to today's social networking sites, where backbiting and personal attacks were embraced by the most chicken-hearted of lunatic mobs.

Still, I like to think such habits reflect more on one's sense of personal responsibility rather than indicating some kind of abnormal brain chemistry. When I learn that someone is wasting months away on World of Warcraft, I don't think "that person needs help"; I think that person needs to get a life. Likewise, I don't think of incessant Tweeting as an illness as much as an annoyance.

But all that said, while the APA is giving us the platform, let's take advantage of the opportunity to have a real dialogue about this.

It's a chance to be honest about some of technology's unintended impact rather than sweeping such consequences under the rug. We all know people who exhibit some sign of Internet "addiction," whether it's an aunt with an online shopping Jones, a colleague with an unhealthy attachment to a smartphone, or the bleary-eyed look of a programmer who pulled another all-nighter on Second Life.

While we might not want those people to drain insurance claim funds or, God forbid, qualify for disability, we might want some answers as to how to deal with them.


2 Comments for "Internet Addiction: A Mental Illness?"

  • Nick March 12, 2010 10:25 am

    I guess you've never dealt with someone with an addiction. If you did, you would know that any form of addition is mental illness, if not physical illness as well. If you can't stop doing something and you hurt family and friends to do it, you have a mental illness. It doesn't matter if it's drugs, alcohol, internet, shopping, television, exercising, or sex.

  • Marcos El Malo February 17, 2010 10:54 am

    Like you (perhaps), I wonder about the necessity or utility of breaking the disorder of addiction into various subcategories, including "internet addiction". But I know from personal experience that underlying mental disorders find their expression through destructive addictive behaviors, whether those involve the internet, drugs/alcohol, sex, work, gambling, etc. (The list goes on, and one begins to suspect that any area of human behavior is fertile ground for addiction.) Perhaps there is some utility in differentiating between behavioral expressions of addiction, because there is no one-size-fits-all treatment. Treatment for someone with an eating disorder is necessarily different from someone with an addiction to drugs. One cannot quit food! Instead one must learn to eat sensibly. Similarly with an internet addiction; in today's world it is hardly practical to not use the internet ever again. I have to take issue with Tony's assertion that it is all a matter of personal responsibility rather than abnormal brain chemistry. The facts are that the addict does have an altered brain chemistry. This has been proven in study after study (misdiagnosis is another matter). Yet Tony does have a point: recovery must start with personal responsibility. The addict cannot be "cured" without it and the determination to go through a painful process of recovery. Furthermore, once there is sufficient recovery from addiction, the underlying causes must be addressed, or the addict will suffer relapse or take on substitute addiction behaviors. Thank you, Tony, for opening this dialogue on CIO Insight.

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