More term warfare: Is the concept of ‘internet addiction’ a misnomer?

A recent study by Professor Phil Reed and his colleagues published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry provided some experimental evidence that internet addicts may be conditioned by what they view on the screen. Given that I was the first person in the world to publish an academic paper on internet addiction back in November 1996 it’s good to see that the number of studies into internet addiction has grown substantially over the last 20 years and that there are now hundreds of studies that have investigated the disorder worldwide in many different ways.

This newly published study is one of the few in the field that has investigated internet addiction from an experimental perspective (as opposed the majority that use self-report survey methods and the increasing number of neuroimaging studies examining what happens inside the brains of those who spend excessive amounts of time online).

Professor Reed’s study involved 100 adult volunteers who were deprived of internet access for four hours. The research team then asked the participants to name a colour (the first one that they could think of) and then gave them 15 minutes to access any websites that they wanted to on the internet. The research team monitored all the sites that the participants visited and after the 15-minute period they were again asked to think of the first colour that came to mind. The participants were also asked to complete various psychometric questionnaires including the Internet Addiction Test (IAT). The IAT is a 20-item test where each item is scored from 0 [not applicable] or 1 [rarely] up to 5 [always]. An example item is How often do you check your e-mail before something else that you need to do?” Those scoring 80 or above (out of 100) are typically defined as having a probable addiction to the internet by those who have used the IAT in previous studies.

Those classed as “high problem [internet] users” on the basis of IAT scores (and who were deprived internet access) were more likely to choose a colour that was prominent on the websites they visited during the 15-minute period after internet deprivation. This wasn’t found in those not classed as internet addicts. Professor Reed said:

“The internet addicts chose a colour associated with the websites they had just visited [and] suggests that aspects of the websites viewed after a period without the net became positively valued. Similar findings have been seen with people who misuse substances, with previous studies showing that a cue associated with any drug that relieves withdrawal becomes positively valued itself. This is the first time though that such an effect has been seen for a behavioural addiction like problematic internet usage”.

While this is an interesting finding there are some major shortcomings both from a methodological standpoint and from a more conceptual angle. Firstly, the number of high problem internet users that were deprived internet access for four hours comprised just 12 individuals so the sample size was incredibly low. Secondly, the individuals classed as high problem internet users had IAT scores ranging from 40 to 72. In short, it is highly unlikely that any of the participants were actually addicted to the internet. Thirdly, although the IAT is arguably the most used screen in the field, it has questionable reliability and validity and is now very out-dated (having been devised in 1998) and does not use the criteria suggested for Internet Disorder in the latest (fifth) edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Using more recently developed instruments such as our own Internet Disorder Scale would have perhaps overcome some of these problems.

There are also much wider problems with the use of the term ‘internet addiction’ as most studies in the field have really investigated addictions on the internet rather than to the internet. For instance, individuals addicted to online gaming, online gambling or online shopping are not internet addicts. They are gambling addicts, gaming addicts or shopping addicts that are using the medium of the internet to engage in their addictive behaviour. There are of course some activities – such as social networking – that could be argued to be a genuine type of internet addiction as such activities only take place online. However, the addiction is to an application rather than the internet itself and this should be termed social networking addiction rather than internet addiction. In short, the overwhelming majority of so-called internet addicts are no more addicted to the internet than alcoholics are addicted to the bottle.

A shorter version of this article was first published in The Conversation

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. & Kuss, D.J. (2015). Online addictions: The case of gambling, video gaming, and social networking. In Sundar, S.S. (Ed.), Handbook of the Psychology of Communication Technology (pp.384-403). Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). Social networking addiction: An overview of preliminary findings. In K. Rosenberg & L. Feder (Eds.), Behavioral Addictions: Criteria, Evidence and Treatment (pp.119-141). New York: Elsevier.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J., Billieux J. & Pontes, H.M. (2016). The evolution of internet addiction: A global perspective. Addictive Behaviors, 53, 193–195.

Griffiths, M.D. & Pontes, H.M. (2014). Internet addiction disorder and internet gaming disorder are not the same. Journal of Addiction Research and Therapy, 5: e124. doi:10.4172/2155-6105.1000e124.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Internet Addiction in Psychotherapy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kuss, D.J., Griffiths, M.D., Karila, L. & Billieux, J. (2014). Internet addiction: A systematic review of epidemiological research for the last decade. Current Pharmaceutical Design, 20, 4026-4052.

Osborne, L. A., Romano, M., Re, F., Roaro, A., Truzoli, R., & Reed, P. (2016). Evidence for an internet addiction disorder: internet exposure reinforces color preference in withdrawn problem users. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 77(2), 269-274.

Pontes, H.M., Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). The clinical psychology of Internet addiction: A review of its conceptualization, prevalence, neuronal processes, and implications for treatment. Neuroscience and Neuroeconomics, 4, 11-23.

Pontes, H.M., Szabo, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). The impact of Internet-based specific activities on the perceptions of Internet Addiction, Quality of Life, and excessive usage: A cross-sectional study. Addictive Behaviors Reports, 1, 19-25.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on July 18, 2016, in Addiction, Case Studies, Compulsion, Cyberpsychology, Gambling, Gambling addiction, I.T., Internet addiction, Internet gambling, Obsession, Online addictions, Online gambling, Online gaming, Psychiatry, Psychological disorders, Psychology, Sex, Social Networking, Technological addiction, Technology, Video game addiction, Video games and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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