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March 11, 2013 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Caught in the Web?


When Internet addiction stops you logging out

Every morning when John wakes up the first thing he does is check his messages. Email. Facebook. Twitter. If he’s got time, he’ll read
a New Zealand Herald article or two to see if anything interesting has happened overnight, before heading to uni.

John packs a smartphone—3G equipped. This sits in his pocket throughout the day and is always connected to the internet. If he is emailed or there is activity on his Facebook wall or any of the other social networks he’s a part of, he gets a notification, no matter where he is.

When he gets home after uni, the first thing he does is check Facebook. “I know there’s nothing to check or anything interesting,” he says, “it just becomes a kind of unconscious habit, something I’m not aware of.”

John is a fourth-year design student. Like all students, John uses the internet a whole lot. For John, that means about five or six hours a day – and that doesn’t include the time his phone sits waiting for notifications. Although John considers his internet use to be slightly above averagem it is by no means extreme, or even unusual. Five or ten years ago though, no student used the internet like this.

Until 2004 you couldn’t access wi-fi at Victoria. Until 2009 students were charged for downloads. Now there is free wi-fi in all communal university areas, the University has a total bandwidth of 500 megabit per second (for all you n00bs, that’s really fast), and on the Thursday before the publication of this article, there were 6100 consecutive connections to the wi-fi network—a Victoria record. While you’ll be hard-pressed to find figures on the number of students with laptops, you’ll be even more hard-pressed to find many students without them. And even if you are laptop-less, there are 1200 shared student computers across campus and throughout the halls of residence. Student flats are also comprehensively wired. If you don’t happen to have a wi-fi package hefty enough to handle your subscription to, it’s likely that a friend has a desktop that you can use for the purpose. And if you have the urge while away from home and between campuses? Well, it’s quite likely you have 3G on your mobile.

The internet has ceome interwoven into the fabric of our lives, and this is because we consider it to a Pretty Good Thing. It has given us access to seemingly infinite information, connected across the globe, made many people many millions – you’ve heard all this before. But like all things with noble potential, the internet, quite uncontroversially, is not always for noble purposes. We Facebook, Tweet, Tumbl, and Instagram. We troll forums, watch lolcats and send lewd pics via SnapChat. We play games and we watch porn. The internet is omnipresent, and we use it without a thought. Usually this is harmless, but as the lines between online and offline become increasingly blurred, the dangers of losing control of our use become ever more real.

* * * * *

In 2004 an American man was dismissed from his job for using his work computer to repeatedly visit a sex-chatroom. The man took his employer, IBM, to court seeking US $5 million in damages, arguing that he had been unfairly dismissed in violation of the American Disabilities Act. His disability, he claimed, was internet addiction.

The next year a 28-year-old Korean man suffered heart failure and died after playing the online computer game Starcraft for 50 hours without breaks. And then there was the suicide of a 21-year-old American man, found dead in front of his computer on Thanksgiving. According to his mother, this was a consequence of his addiction to the online game, Everquest.

These cases are the extreme ones, but they are not the only alleged instances of Internet Addiction Disorder, or IAD as it has become known.

A 2011 study by Yale researchers of over 3500 high school students in Connecticut found that one in every 25 teens was addicted to the internet. These students reported an “irresistible urge” to be online when they weren’t, or said they had tried unsuccessfully to cut down on their internet use. They were also more likely than their peers to be depressed, aggressive, or use drugs. Higher numbers have been alleged by other parties; Dr. Maressa Orzack of Harvard University contends that between five and 10 per cent of internet users suffer some form of web dependency.

The idea is the same as with other forms of addiction, although in this case it concerns a process rather than a substance. When you, John or I, game—or, say, use Facebook—we anticipate reward through shooting a bad-guy, receiving messages, or finding a funny picture on 9gag. These rewards are regular but we can’t predict how regular they will be. This means that when we do get the reward—when we get the LOL or the head-shot—our brain releases excessive amounts of dopamine—that’s the stuff that makes us feel good.

Although dopamine is undoubtedly a Good Time, researchers at the University of Bergen in Norway have claimed that heavy users of Facebook suffer from symptoms similar to those suffering from alcohol or drug addiction. Perhaps even more daunting is a Chinese study published this year, which found structural differences in the brains of adolescents suffering from IAD compared to those in an age-matched
control group. As if destroying your social life was not enough, this study suggests that excessive internet use may actually change your brain, impairing your white matter fibres, and thereby changing the way you generate and process emotion, make decisions and control your own thoughts.*

In perhaps the most telling sign that the public considers there to be a problem, a booming self-help industry for internet addicts has emerged. There is, for example, the ITAA, or Technology Addiction Anonymous, which offers a clean, quick and easy twelve-step, non-theistic program to “confront the social, economic and interpersonal problems brought by an overuse of technology.” For more severe cases, more intensive rehab schemes are available, such as the Seattle based reStart programme. Patients are implored
to “disconnect, and find yourself”—for just US$20,000. But these retreats pale in comparison to techniques employed by the Chinese Government, which have established military style bootcamps in which patients are subjected to social isolation, hypnosis and electroshock treatment in a nationwide attempt to tackle what the Communist Youth League considers a “grave social problem”.

* * * * *

Despite the spread of self-help programmes and draconian bootcamps, in New Zealand, as in virtually all other countries aside from China, internet addiction is not recognised as a clinical disorder. Psychologists, such as Marc Wilson, Associate Professor of Psychology at Victoria, point out that it is generally not the World Wide Web itself which people become addicted to, or even act compulsively toward, but rather certain aspects of it, like gaming, shopping, gambling or pornography.

“[Y]ou don’t need a specific ‘diagnosis’ for it because there are already generic categories of problems that can be applied, that also apply to dependence on other things”, Wilson explains.

Because those who exhibit problematic internet use also tend to show signs of other psychological conditions—such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, and impulsivity—a diagnosis of Internet Addiction Disorder might obscure potentially important alternative diagnoses, according to Wilson.

Regardless of the clinical classification of excessive internet use however, the associated harms remain. For those checking into internet rehab, the issues are clear. But these extreme cases don’t cover the whole spectrum of people using the internet in a problematic manner. While the average Vic student packing a smartphone and laptop with compulsive tendencies toward social media may seem a distant figure to those traditionally considered to be internet addicts, is this gulf as big as we think? At what point does it become a problem?

Marc Wilson puts it simply: “It’s a problem if it’s a problem.”

While this may seem tautological, it’s not sheer trickery. Wilson has a point. The problem is not the amount of time you spend online, but whether that use is actually causing you problems.

“[W]e’re not all the same,” Wilson explains, “some people might spend 10 hours a day on the net and not feel that their personal, family or work life is affected. Someone else might find that their spouse leaves them, they lose their job, and they constantly feel ashamed when doing exactly the same thing.”

John agrees.

“You can always say that you shouldn’t go online as much as you do because you would be better off spending half-an-hour less on the internet and spending that time exercising instead, but that doesn’t mean it’s a serious problem”, he says. “I think it’s a serious problem when it is taking a really big effect on yourself or your relationships.”

This point reflects the underlying logic of psychologists in warning against considering excessive internet use as an addication. While psychological illness is associated with excessive inernet use, that doesn’t mean that internet use necessarily causes those psychological illnesses. It may be the case that and individual is using the internet excessively because they are depressed, not the other way around.

For the average university student like John, inordinate amounts of time spent online is not then necessarily something to be worried about. It may just be the case that you really like the internet. And that’s okay. But if that use starts to prevent you from achieving what you wanted to achieve at university, then it might be time to change your behaviour or seek help.

As for what you use the internet for, well, Wilson has one piece of advice that students taking his PSYC121 class might bear in mind:

“Porn is a no-no […] Lots of lecture theatres have cameras up in the back that not only mean I can record my lectures for you, but I can also zoom in to see who you’ve just friended…”

*Of course, this begs the numerous questions: who is really in control, man or machine? Do we have control over our brains? If we are nothing apart from our brains do we have free will? Is the concept of a distinct self an illusion? And who is Joseph Kony?

Note: The author would like to thank Vic ITS and Associate Professor Marc Wilson for their assistance in the research of this article.


About the Author ()

Ollie served dutifully alongside Asher Emanuel as Co-editor of Salient throughout the tumult of 2012. He has contributed to Salient since 2011 and intends to do so for the rest of his waking life.

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