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Search of the poisoned mind? A brief look at ‘internet search dependence’

Despite being a controversial topic, research into a wide variety of online addictions has grown substantially over the last decade. My own research into online addictions has been wide ranging and has included online social networking, online sex addiction, online gaming addiction, online shopping addiction, and online gambling addiction. As early as the late 1990s/early 2000s, I constantly argued that when it came to online addictions, most of those displaying problematic behaviour had addictions on the internet rather than addictions to the internet (i.e., they were not addicted to the medium of the internet but addicted to applications and activities that could be engaged in via the internet).

A recent 2016 paper by Dr. Yifan Wang and colleagues in the journal Frontiers in Public Health described the development of the Questionnaire of Internet Search Dependence (QISD), a tool developed to assess individuals who may be displaying a dependence on using online search engines (such as Google and Baidu). The notion of individuals being addicted to using search engines is not new and was one of five types of internet addiction outlined in a 1999 typology in a paper in the Student British Medical Journal by Dr. Kimberley Young (and what she termed ‘information overload’ and referred to compulsive database searching). Although I criticized the typology on the grounds that most of the types of online addict were not actually internet addicts but were individuals using the medium of the internet to fuel other addictive behaviours (e.g., gambling, gaming, day trading, etc.), I did implicitly acknowledge that activities such as internet database searching could theoretically exist, even if I did not think it was a type of internet addiction.

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As far as I am aware, the new scale developed by Wang et al. (2016) is the first to create and psychometrically evaluate an instrument to assess ‘internet search dependence’. As noted by the authors:

Subsequently, we compiled 16 items to represent psychological characteristics associated with Internet search dependence, based on the literature review and a follow-up interview with 50 randomly selected university students…We adopted the six criteria for behavioral addiction formulated by Griffiths (i.e., salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict, and relapse) [Griffiths, 1999b]”.

Given the authors claimed they used an early version of my addiction components model (i.e., one from 1999 rather than my most recent 2005 formulation) to help inform item construction, I was obviously interested to see the scale’s formulated items. I have to admit that I had a lot of misgivings about the paper so I wrote a commentary on it that has just been published in the same journal (Frontiers in Public Health). More specifically, I noted in my paper that if an individual was genuinely addicted to searching online databases I would have expected to see all of my six criteria applied as follows:

  • Salience – This occurs when searching internet databases becomes the single most important activity in the person’s life and dominates their thinking (preoccupations and cognitive distortions), feelings (cravings) and behaviour (deterioration of socialized behaviour). For instance, even if the person is not actually searching the internet they will be constantly thinking about the next time that they will be (i.e., a total preoccupation with internet database searching).
  • Mood modification – This refers to the subjective experiences that people report as a consequence of internet database searching and can be seen as a coping strategy (i.e., they experience an arousing ‘buzz’ or a ‘high’ or paradoxically a tranquilizing feel of ‘escape’ or ‘numbing’ when searching internet databases).
  • Tolerance – This is the process whereby increasing amounts of time searching internet databases are required to achieve the former mood modifying effects. This basically means that for someone engaged in internet database searching, they gradually build up the amount of the time they spend searching internet databases every day.
  • Withdrawal symptoms – These are the unpleasant feeling states and/or physical effects (e.g., the shakes, moodiness, irritability, etc.), that occur when an individual is unable to search internet databases because they are ill, the internet is unavailable, or there is no Wi-Fi on holiday, etc.
  • Conflict – This refers to the conflicts between the person and those around them (interpersonal conflict), conflicts with other activities (social life, hobbies and interests) or from within the individual themselves (intra-psychic conflict and/or subjective feelings of loss of control) that are concerned with spending too much time searching internet databases.
  • Relapse – This is the tendency for repeated reversions to earlier patterns of excessive internet database searching to recur and for even the most extreme patterns typical of the height of excessive internet database searching to be quickly restored after periods of control.

Of the 12 QISD items constructed in the new scale, very few appeared to have anything to do with addiction and/or dependence but this is most likely due to the fact that the authors also used data collected from 50 participants to inform their items and not just the criteria in the addiction components model. However, relying heavily on input from their participants resulted in a number of key features in addiction/dependence not even being assessed (i.e., no assessment of salience, mood modification, conflict, relapse or tolerance). A couple of items may peripherally assess withdrawal symptoms (e.g., ‘I will be upset if I cannot find an answer to a complex question through Internet search’) but not in any way that is directly associated with addiction or dependence. This may be because the authors’ conceptualization of ‘dependence’ was more akin to ‘over-reliance’ rather than traditional definitions of dependence.

While the QISD may be psychometrically robust I argued that it appears to have little face validity and does not appear to assess problematic engagement in internet database searching (irrespective of how addiction or dependence is defined). Based on the addiction components model, I concluded my paper by creating my own scale to assess internet search dependence based directly on the addiction components model and which I argued would have much greater face validity than any item currently found in the QISD:

  • Internet database searching is the most important thing in my life.
  • Conflicts have arisen between me and my family and/or my partner about the amount of time I spend searching internet databases.
  • I engage in internet database searching as a way of changing my mood.
  • Over time I have increased the amount of internet database searching I do in a day.
  • If I am unable to engage in internet database searching I feel moody and irritable.
  • If I cut down the amount of internet database searching I do, and then start again, I always end up searching internet databases as often as I did before.

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

Further reading

Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D., Pallesen, S., Bilder, R.M., Torsheim, T. Aboujaoude, E.N. (2015). The Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale: Reliability and validity of a brief screening test. Frontiers in Psychology, 6:1374. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01374.

Andreassen, C.S., Pallesen, S., Griffiths, M.D. (2017). The relationship between excessive online social networking, narcissism, and self-esteem: Findings from a large national survey. Addictive Behaviors, 64, 287-293.

Canale, N., Griffiths, M.D., Vieno, A., Siciliano, V. & Molinaro, S. (2016). Impact of internet gambling on problem gambling among adolescents in Italy: Findings from a large-scale nationally representative survey. Computers in Human Behavior, 57, 99-106.

Griffiths, M.D. (1998). Internet addiction: Does it really exist? In J. Gackenbach (Ed.), Psychology and the Internet: Intrapersonal, Interpersonal and Transpersonal Applications (pp. 61-75). New York: Academic Press.

Griffiths, M.D. (1999a). Internet addiction: Internet fuels other addictions. Student British Medical Journal, 7, 428-429.

Griffiths, M.D. (1999b). Internet addiction: Fact or fiction? The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 12, 246-250.

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Internet addiction – Time to be taken seriously? Addiction Research, 8, 413-418.

Griffiths, M.D.  (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Internet sex addiction: A review of empirical research. Addiction Research and Theory, 20, 111-124.

Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Commentary: Development and validation of a self-reported Questionnaire for Measuring Internet Search Dependence. Frontiers in Public Health, in press.

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.

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.

Pontes, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Measuring DSM-5 Internet Gaming Disorder: Development and validation of a short psychometric scale. Computers in Human Behavior, 45, 137-143.

Wang, Y., Wu, L., Zhou, H., Xu, J. & Dong, G. (2016). Development and validation of a self-reported Questionnaire for Measuring Internet Search Dependence. Frontiers in Public Health, 4, 274. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2016.00274

Young, K. S. (1999). Internet addiction: evaluation and treatment. Student British Medical Journal, 7, 351-352.

The need in deed: Is ‘loss of control’ always a consequence of addiction?

I recently published a potentially controversial paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry arguing that loss of control may not always be a natural consequence of addiction. Research into addiction has a long history although there has always been much debate as to what the key components of addiction are. Irrespective of the theory and model of addiction, most theorizing on addiction tends to assume (implicitly or explicitly) that ‘loss of control’ is central (if not fundamental) to addiction. My paper challenges such notions by arguing that there are a minority of individuals who appear to be addicted to a behaviour (i.e., work) but do not necessarily appear to display any loss of control.

Research into many different types of addiction has shown that addicts are not a homogeneous group, and this may also have implications surrounding control and loss of control. Many years ago, in my 1995 book Adolescent Gambling, I argued that in relation to problem gambling there appear to be at least two sub-types of addiction – primary addictions and secondary addictions. I defined primary addictions as those in which a person is addicted to the activity itself, and that individuals love engaging in the activity whether it is gambling, sex or playing video games. Here, the behaviour is primarily engaged in to get aroused, excited, and/or to get a ‘buzz’ or ‘high’. I defined secondary addictions as those in which the person engages in the behaviour as a way of dealing with other underlying problems (i.e., the addiction is symptomatic of other underlying problems). Here the behaviour is primarily engaged in to escape, to numb, to de-stress, and/or to relax.

Therapeutically, I argued that it is easier to treat secondary addictions. My argument was that if the underlying problem is addressed (e.g., depression), the addictive behaviour should diminish and/or disappear. Primary addicts appear to be more resistant to treatment because they genuinely love the behaviour (even though it may be causing major problems in their life). Furthermore, the very existence of primary addictions challenges the idea that loss of control is fundamental to definitions and concepts of addiction. Clearly, people with primary addictions have almost no desire to stop or cut down their behaviour of choice because it is something they believe is life affirming and central to the identity of who they are. But does lack of a desire to stop the behaviour they love prevent ‘loss of control’ from occurring? Arguably it does, particularly when examining the research on workaholism.

I have popularized the ‘addiction components model’, particularly in relation to behavioural addiction (i.e., non-chemical addictions that do not involve the ingestion of a psychoactive substance). The addiction components model operationally defines addictive activity as any behaviour that features what I believe are the six core components of addiction (i.e., salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict and relapse, and which I outlined in my very first blog on this site)

One of the observations that can be made by examining these six criteria is that ‘loss of control’ is not one of the necessary components for an individual to be defined as addicted to an activity. Although I acknowledge that ‘loss of control’ can occur in many (if not most) addicts, loss of control is subsumed within the ‘conflict’ component rather than a core component in and of itself. The main reason for this is because I believe that there are some addictions – particularly behavioural addictions such as workaholism – where the person may be addicted without necessarily losing control. However, such a claim depends on how ‘loss of control’ is defined and the highlights the ambiguity in our standard understanding of addiction (i.e., the ambiguity of control as ability/means versus control as goal/end).

When theorists define and conceptualise ‘loss of control’ as applied to addictive behaviour, it typically refers to (i) the loss of the ability to regulate and control the behaviour, (ii) the loss of ability to choose between a range of behavioural options, and/or (iii) the lack of resistance to prevent engagement in the behaviour. In some behaviours such as workaholism and anorexia, the person arguably tries to achieve control in some way (i.e., over their work in the case of a workaholic, or over food in the case of an anorexic). However, this in itself is not a counter-example to the idea that addiction is a ‘loss of control’ if workaholics and anorexics have lost the ability to control other aspects of their day-to-day lives in their pursuit of control over work or food (i.e., there is a difference between control as the goal/end of behaviour, and control as an ability/means.

There is an abundance of research indicating that one of the key indicators of workaholism (alongside such behaviours as high performance standards, long working hours, working outside of work hours, and personal identification with the job) is that of control of work activities. In a recent paper I wrote with my colleague Dr. Maria Karanika-Murray in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, we also noted that the need for control is high among workaholics, and as a consequence they have difficulty in disengaging from work leading to many other negative detrimental effects on their life such as relationship breakdowns. Even some of the instruments developed to assess workaholism utilize questions concerning the need to be in control.

There are also other studies that suggest some workaholics do not experience a ‘loss of control’ in the traditional sense that is used elsewhere in the addiction literature. For instance, in a 2004 issue of the Journal of Organizational Change Management, Dr. Peter Mudrack reported that two particular aspects of obsessive-compulsive personality (i.e., being stubborn and highly responsible) were predictive of workaholism. A very recent paper by Dr. Ayesha Tabassum and Dr. Tasnuva Rahman in the International Journal of Research Studies in Psychology noted that perfectionist workaholics experience an overbearing need for control and are very scrupulous and detail-oriented about their work. Unusually among addictions, workaholics usually have no desire to reduce or regulate their work behaviour (i.e., there is no ambivalence or conflicting desire for them). In this instance, there is no evidence of ‘loss of control’ as traditionally understood, because if they had ambivalent or conflicting desires, they would change their behaviour (i.e., reduce the amount of time they spend working). Although not an exhaustive list of studies, those mentioned here appear to indicate that some workaholics appear to be more in control than not in control.

When the addiction is primary, the goal/end of the behaviour is desired and/or endorsed without ambivalence by the addict. In these situations (as in some cases of workaholism), there is no evidence for loss of control, because no (failed) attempts are made by the addict to alter their behaviour. However, this could arguably still be compatible with the claim that there is loss of control in the sense of ability and/or means, because, if the workaholic tried to work less (or work in a less controlling way) because they started to recognize ill effects the addictive behaviour was having on their personal life, then they may fail to do so. Therefore, the lack of evidence is indicative rather than conclusive.

However, one of the reasons that workaholism raises interesting theoretical and conceptual issues concerning the loss of control is that it is an example of an addiction where the goal/end is itself a form of control (i.e., control over their productivity/outputs, control over others, control over time-keeping, etc.). Unlike many other addictions, such behaviour is not impulsive and/or chaotic but carefully planned and executed. So this raises the question, in what sense is workaholism a loss of control, understood in the typical way, as ability/means to the behaviour’s goal/end? In some cases of workaholism, there is no evidence that the workaholic lacks control over this goal/end, as they do not try to change their behaviour (and thus cannot fail to do so).

It could be argued – and this is admittedly speculative – that ‘loss of control’ as is traditionally understood appears to have a greater association with secondary addiction (i.e., where an individual’s addiction is symptomatic of other underlying problems) than primary (or ‘happy’ or ‘positive’) addiction (i.e., where an individual feels totally rewarded by the activity despite the negative consequences). Such a speculation has good face validity but needs empirical testing. However, a complicating factor is the fact that my studies on adolescent gambling addicts have demonstrated that some individuals start out as primary addicts but became secondary addicts over time. Again, this suggests that control (and loss of it) may be something that changes its nature over time.

In essence, workaholics appear to make poor choices and/or decisions that have wide-reaching detrimental consequences in their lives. However, at present we lack evidence that (should they decide otherwise) they would be unable to work in a more healthy way. Furthermore, and equally as important, the nature of workaholic behaviour is not impulsive and chaotic, but carefully planned and executed. This is particularly striking among some workaholics, because as I have noted, it is an addiction that for some individuals they continue to work happily despite objectively negative consequences (e.g., relationship breakdowns, neglect of parental duties, etc.). What the empirical research on workaholism suggests is that it is an example of an addiction in which the problem is better characterized as loss of prudence rather than loss of control, as traditionally understood.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D., Hetland, J. & Pallesen, S. (2012). Development of a Work Addiction Scale. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 53, 265-272.

Andreassen, C. S., Torsheim, T., Brunborg, G. S., & Pallesen, S. (2012) Development of a Facebook addiction scale. Psychological Reports, 110, 501-517.

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Adolescent Gambling. London: Routledge.

Griffiths, M.D.  (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Workaholism: A 21st century addiction. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 24, 740-744.

Griffiths, M.D. & Karanika-Murray, M. (2012). Contextualising over-engagement in work: Towards a more global understanding of workaholism as an addiction. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1(3), 87-95.

Mudrack, P.E. (2004). Job involvement, obsessive-compulsive personality traits, and workaholic behavioral tendencies. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 17, 490-508.

Mudrack, P.E. & Naughton, T.J. (2001) The assessment of workaholism as behavioral tendencies: Scale development and preliminary empirical testing. International Journal of Stress Management, 8, 93-111.

Tabassum, A. & Rahman, T. (2012). Gaining the insight of workaholism, its nature and its outcome: A literature review. International Journal of Research Studies in Psychology, 2, 81-92.