Hooked on the internet

The term Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) began as a joke back in 1995 when a New York psychiatrist named Ivan K. Goldberg noticed he was spending more than two hours a day browsing psycom.net – still a legitimate site, but in those days just a series of bulletin boards for shrinks. Deciding to play a prank on fellow browsers, he posted a parody of the American Psychiatric Association’s “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” and listed IAD’s symptoms: “important social or occupational activities that are given up or reduced because of Internet use,” “fantasies or dreams about the Internet,” and “voluntary or involuntary typing movements of the fingers.” The joke backfired when colleagues began admitting to “netaholism” and emailing him for help.

That, of course, was more than a decade before the introduction of the smartphone, highly graphical portable computers vastly more powerful than Goldberg’s original IBM PC. Today, on virtually any street on the planet, you’ll find people glued to them; some plugged into headphones or earbuds, all heedless of virtually everything around them. But is internet addiction really a “thing”?

Not according to the World Health Organization, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that Goldberg parodied, or the latest International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). However, a diagnosis of gaming disorder is included in the ICD-11.

The problem seems to be with that word “addiction”. As Goldberg noted 1997, two years after his prank:

“IAD makes it sound as if one were dealing with heroin, a truly addicting substance… To medicalize every behaviour by putting it into psychiatric nomenclature is ridiculous. If you expand the concept of addiction to include everything people can overdo, then you must talk about people being addicted to books, [etc.]”


These days it goes by a variety of terms: problematic or pathological internet use, internet overuse, problematic computer use, compulsive internet use, internet abuse, harmful use of the internet, or just internet dependency. However it’s phrased, it is a problem for some people, especially the generation born since the advent of smartphones. A 2019 survey conducted by Common Sense Media, showed that US children aged 8 to 12 spent 5 hours a day on digital devices, while teens clocked up more than 7 hours a day – and that’s not including schoolwork.

Does excessive use signify a problem? How many of the pre-smartphone generation would have spent a similar amount of time watching television, listening to music, playing computer games or hanging out with friends each day? The fact that you can do all of those things on a single device doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a problem.

Problematic use is generally broken up into five broad classifications…

Internet gaming disorder (aka “video game addiction”)

What’s not to like? Complex, demanding, immersive, highly graphical games, many with an online component that allow you to team up with friends from around the world. Addicts range from children to mature adults, and gaming disorder is formally recognised by the latest International Classification of Diseases.

The dangers: According to the ICD: “Increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities; and … continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”

The increasing prevalence of free-to-play games financed by in-game purchases for skins, power-ups and access to secret areas – so called microtransactions – may prove problematic for younger players or the financially vulnerable.

Compulsive Spending

Online casinos and betting sites are obvious lures, but compulsive spending isn’t restricted to just gambling. Following and trading stocks, online auctions, and even online shopping can become addictive.

The dangers: With instant and easy access, the greatest danger is to those already susceptible to gambling or over-spending.

Social Media Addiction

Also known as Communication Addiction Disorder, the need to be in constant touch with other people, even where there’s no practical need for it, affects an estimated 5 to 10% of Americans. The platforms themselves are specifically designed to encourage excessive or compulsive use with constant scrolling, likes, retweets, shares, friend counters and engagement to the extent that online time may impair other real-life activities.

The dangers: This from AddictionCenter pretty much sums it up…

The phenomena of social media addiction can be largely attributed to the dopamine-inducing social environments that social networking sites provide. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram produce the same neural circuitry that is caused by gambling and recreational drugs to keep consumers using their products as much as possible. Studies have shown that the constant stream of retweets, likes, and shares from these sites cause the brain’s reward area to trigger the same kind of chemical reaction seen with drugs like Cocaine. In fact, neuroscientists have compared social media interaction to a syringe of dopamine being injected straight into the system.


Relationship Addiction

The search for a soulmate online can be an emotional minefield. Not only can it lead to the neglect real-life family and friends, but also the ditching of relationships that might just need a little work. The constant search for someone better, someone perfect, can be dangerous and soul destroying.

The dangers: Surprise, surprise, but not everyone is who you think they are online, nor are their lives as idyllic as portrayed on social media. Catfishing – the creation of fictional personas and fake identities – is rife in the online dating world, and it’s not just your confidence and self-esteem that are at risk. In New Zealand alone, Netsafe recorded a 39% increase in romance scams involving a financial loss between 2019 and 2020 with an average loss per victim of NZ$18,667. But that’s just the reported scams. They note, “In reality, actual losses are likely much higher.”

Cybersex Addiction

One of the more self-explanatory internet addictions, it involves adult websites, online pornography, adult chat rooms and webcam sites catering to all manner of sexual fantasies.

The dangers: Objectification of sex and intimacy can spill over into the real world resulting in difficulties forming sexual, romantic, or intimate relationships. It may also impact the spouse, partner or others in a relationship with the addict.

Compulsive Information Seeking

Often related to anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorders, (OCD), the very availability of vast stores of information compels some people to click on, collect and organise that data. One sufferer noted:

I’m kind of disappointed that there isn’t a lot of information available on this topic (oh wait… is this just my disorder showing up again?).


The dangers: Like anything, too much screen time and not enough RL (real-life) time isn’t good for anybody.


In a sense, we’re all in the middle of a grand experiment. The generation born with the iPhone, a generation who can’t imagine a world without always-on, ubiquitous, hi-res communications are the prime guinea pigs. Whether the internet ultimately leads to the bold, informed and more homogeneous humanity its early proponents envisaged, or whether it turns us into narrow, siloed, untrusting bigots feeding on a morass of misinformation is yet to be determined.

Image credit: (c) Can Stock Photo / ivelinradkov

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