What internet addiction is, and what it is not

I’ll start with a disclaimer that my field of expertise is not psychology. I don’t intend to truly diagnose clinical addiction to anything here. What I want to talk about is the casual bandying about of the phrase “internet addiction,” especially as it pertains to young people–especially as it is often used by people no more qualified to diagnose an addiction than I.

While working on my dissertation, I did a section of my literature review on the notion of internet addiction, as a possible negative side effect of increasing screen time in schools and other education technology trends. While there was some viable data, it seemed to me that the jury was still out on what internet addiction actually was, and how serious the effects were. There is an identified disorder now known as internet addiction disorder. I am not disputing any particular studies relating to the clinical diagnosis of this disorder. My issue is the fact that most who use the terms internet or technology addiction do so in a reckless way.  These terms have become casual in use, and people who often throw the terms about seek to diagnose a perceived problem, particularly among young people. I see this misuse as a gross misunderstanding, borne of cultural and generational gaps. I see some version of this lay diagnosis almost every day by peers and parents.

The scene: teen girl spends 7 hours per day on her web-enabled phone. She texts, visits social media sites and other sites of interest at her leisure. She does not go without it often. She sleeps with it. Surely she is addicted.

Why must addiction be the only explanation? The digital culture of youth today may very well spend many many hours doing just that. But what does it matter? There is rarely a discussion about what parts of her life suffer from this behavior. What she does is wholly socially acceptable (within the digital culture), perfectly legal, and is not likely to solely affect relationships in a negative way. She is also an A student. She is also on the track team and has piano lessons several times per week. And she is not alone. There have been, to my understanding, no definitive studies directly linking success in school with excessive use of the internet. In fact, the general consensus seems to be that those students privileged enough to have that much access to the internet, actually do better in schools. So why must we assume something is wrong with this behavior?

Scene: a boy carries a novel with him wherever he goes, and uses any available time he has to read it. He may read 2-3 novels per week. He may read upwards of 8-10 hours per day.

Why is this behavior treated differently? Because our society, at least the more traditional segment of it, has always seen reading as admirable and germane to learning, most would think nothing if it. This boy is, in fact, failing all of his classes. Since he chooses to read his book during classes (until asked to stow it), and most of every evening, he gets little from school. While he may be gaining some language skills, he is not failing any other by which he will eventually earn a degree or a job. Perhaps he will grow out of it. Perhaps he is addicted. I wonder if that diagnosis would be taken seriously.

I have had several versions of both of these students. I would say that the “internet addict” is generally far more socially apt and possesses far better communication skills than the bookworm. In fact, I cannot think of an exception to that generalization. But it is a generalization, and that is what we need to break free from.

The real issue here is how people value how others spend their free time. Internet use is probably not going to be problematic if it is seen as a legitimate leisure time activity. Some folks bury themselves in Sudoku, others in sewing, still others in car maintenance. Internet, phone, computer use should not be seen any other way until it clearly keeps a person from functioning in everyday activities. It doesn’t mean it’s an addiction, and it doesn’t mean it is a path to destruction. True clinical diagnoses of addictive disorders can be made to apply to any one of hundreds of obsessive behaviors. We need to leave that to the experts. If a student is engaged in destructive behavior and the internet is involved, that is a particular case. We cannot paint every teen with that brush. We need to change our lens.  Adults need to watch their words and actions. The capabilities of technology allow for young people to be reading, working on brain games, or simply watching television on phones, tablets, or laptops. These are activities that would go unnoticed in their traditional forms. We need to realize when the behavior is perhaps irritation, and when it is truly debilitating to the student. We need to get over the notion that there is something wrong with young people who spend a great deal of time in the digital world. There are obvious problems with too much of anything. Moderation is key, no one would dispute that. Let’s just make sure we keep the context in mind before we automatically diagnose our kids with internet addiction. Might be they are just ordinary teens after all.



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