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The problem of internet addiction

The internet has become an integral part of our lives and has made tasks that used to require hours to accomplish achievable at the click of a finger. However, the internet is also a major source of distraction. For most people, the distractions don’t outweigh the increases in productivity gained by the internet. But for some, internet gaming and media outlets become sources of addiction that bring their productivity, and their lives in general, to a complete stop.

Comparing internet usage between different demographic groups can be difficult because study designs differ in their definitions of what constitutes internet usage. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit private research group, found that in 2009, Americans between the ages of 8 and 18 spent an average of 7.5 hours a day consuming media content, which included computers, televisions, and video games. The heaviest users spent an astonishing 16 hours a day consuming media.

Internet usage was also found to differ across countries. On average, American teens were online for 7 hours a week while a South Korean government study found that teens there spend 23 hours a week playing video games. Spending extensive amounts of time on the internet can have severe health and social effects.

One internet addict described a five-week gaming binge in an interview with The Mirror. He never left his apartment, let pizza boxes and garbage pile up, and completely ignored his friends, family, and studies. These stories are starting to become commonplace: a study conducted at Stanford University estimated that around 1 in 8 Americans suffer from internet addiction. Internet-addicted users experience repetitive, intrusive urges to use the internet despite functional impairment or subsequent distress.

Internet addiction is currently not believed to be an isolated disorder, but rather, is associated with other mental health problems including social phobia and depression, and some researchers draw a link to obsessive-compulsive disorders. A longitudinal study conducted in China, where internet addiction is recognized by the government as a public health concern, has found an intensifying feedback loop where prior mental health problems predispose people to internet addiction, which then exacerbates mental health problems. While internet usage continues to increase, the treatment options for addicts are slow to catch up.

Internet addiction is currently not believed to be an isolated disorder, but rather, is associated with other mental health problems including social phobia and depression, and some researchers draw a link to obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Internet addiction is not currently recognized by the newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Instead, it is listed as a condition requiring further study. The opponents to including internet addiction as a mental health disorder cite inconsistency in its definition as a disease and blame poorly designed research studies that obscure the facts. Exclusion from the DSM not only reduces recognition of internet addiction but also the likelihood that insurance companies will pay for its treatment, which can be expensive.

Clinics offering rehab-like facilities for internet addicts have opened, but costs are steep. Treatment at reSTART, a popular rehab facility based in Washington state, can be upwards of $14,000 for a 45 day stay. The centre offers cognitive behavioural therapy, group counselling, and recreational activities that all seem to involve physical activity. However, some clinicians believe that internet addiction cannot exist on its own and shouldn’t be treated as such.

Dr. Bruce Ballon, director of the internet addiction program at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, told the Toronto Star that he searches for underlying diseases, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, which he believes are the root cause of internet addiction.

While Canadian and American psychiatrists are still debating the definition and best treatment for internet addiction, their South Korean and Chinese counterparts are moving ahead with nationwide policies. After a string of heart failure-related deaths in internet cafés, and one gaming-related murder, South Korea has invested in training over 1,000 counsellors to treat internet addiction.

China has passed laws that discourage more than three hours of daily video gaming. The law requires online gaming operators to install a ‘game fatigue system.’ The system allows three hours of regular play and only half the points earned for the next two hours. After five hours, no points are awarded and a pop-up appears every 15 minutes warning the gamer of their unhealthy behaviour.

Some parents have decided to take matters into their own hands. As reported in the online news site TG Daily, one father, fed up with his son’s addiction to World of Warcraft, hired virtual assassins to kill his son’s character with the hope that it would dissuade him from gaming.

As the internet continues to increase its presence in our lives, more research is needed to determine root causes, effective treatments, and optimal public health policy.