Blog Archives

Myth world: Addictive personality does not exist

(Please note: This article is a slightly expanded and original version of an article that was first published in The Conversation).

“Life is a series of addictions and without them we die”. This is my favourite quote in the academic addiction literature and was made back in 1990 in the British Journal of Addiction by Professor Isaac Marks. This deliberately provocative and controversial statement was made to stimulate debate about whether excessive and potentially problematic activities such as gambling, sex and work can really be classed as genuine addictive behaviours. Many of us might say to ourselves that we are ‘addicted’ to tea or coffee, our work, or know others who we might describe as having addictions watching the television or using pornography. But is this really true?

The issue all comes down to how addiction is defined in the first place as many of us in the field disagree on what the core components of addiction are. Many would argue that the word ‘addiction’ or ‘addictive’ is used so much in everyday circumstances that word has become meaningless. For instance, saying that a book is an ‘addictive read’ or that a specific television series is ‘addictive viewing’ renders the word useless in a clinical setting. Here the word ‘addictive’ is arguably used in a positive way and as such it devalues the real meaning of the word.

The question I get asked most – particularly by the broadcast media – is what is the difference between a healthy excessive enthusiasm and an addiction and my response is simple – a healthy excessive enthusiasm adds to life whereas an addiction takes away from it. I also believe that to be classed as an addiction, any such behaviour should comprise a number of key components including overriding preoccupation with the behaviour, conflict with other activities and relationships, withdrawal symptoms when unable to engage in the activity, an increase in the behaviour over time (tolerance), and use of the behaviour to alter mood state. Other consequences such as feeling out of control with the behaviour and cravings for the behaviour are often present. If all these signs and symptoms are present I would call the behaviour a true addiction. However, that hasn’t stopped others accusing me of ‘watering down’ the concept of addiction.

A few years ago, Dr. Steve Sussman, Nadra Lisha and I published a large and comprehensive review in the journal Evaluation and the Health Professions examining the co-relationship between eleven different potentially addictive behaviours reported in the academic literature (smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol, taking illicit drugs, eating, gambling, internet use, love, sex, exercise, work, and shopping). We examined the data from 83 large-scale studies and reported an overall 12-month prevalence of an addiction among U.S. adults varies from 15% to 61%. We also reported it plausible that 47% of the U.S. adult population suffers from maladaptive signs of an addictive disorder over a 12-month period, and that it may be useful to think of addictions as due to problems of lifestyle as well as to person-level factors. In short – and with many caveats – our paper argued that at any one time almost half the US population are addicted to one or more behaviours.

There is a lot of scientific literature showing that having one addiction increases the propensity to have other co-occurring addictions. For instance, in my own research I have come across alcoholic pathological gamblers and we can all probably think of individuals that we might describe as caffeine-addicted workaholics. It is also very common for individuals that give up one addiction to replace it with another (which we psychologists call ‘reciprocity’). This is easily understandable as when an individual gives up one addiction it leaves a large hole in the waking lives (often referred to as the ‘void’) and often the only activities that can fill the void and give similar experiences are other potentially addictive behaviours. This has led many people to describe such people as having an ‘addictive personality’.

While there are many pre-disposing factors for addictive behaviour including genetic factors and psychological personality traits such as high neuroticism (anxious, unhappy, prone to negative emotions) and low conscientiousness (impulsive, careless, disorganised), I would argue that ‘addictive personality’ is a complete myth. Even though there is good scientific evidence that most people with addictions are highly neurotic, neuroticism in itself is not predictive of addiction (for instance, there are individuals who are highly neurotic but are not addicted to anything so neuroticism is not predictive of addiction). In short, there is no good evidence that there is a specific personality trait (or set of traits) that is predictive of addiction and addiction alone.

Doing something habitually or excessively does not necessarily make it problematic. While there are many behaviours such as drinking too much caffeine or watching too much television that could theoretically be described as addictive behaviours, they are more likely to be habitual behaviours that are important in an individual’s life but actually cause little or no problems. As such, these behaviours should not be described as an addiction unless the behaviour causes significant psychological and/or physiological effects in their day-to-day lives.

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

Further reading

Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D., Gjertsen, S.R., Krossbakken, E., Kvan, S., & Ståle Pallesen, S. (2013). The relationships between behavioral addictions and the five-factor model of personality. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2, 90-99.

Goodman, A. (2008). Neurobiology of addiction: An integrative review. Biochemical Pharmacology, 75(1), 266-322.

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.

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

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The role of context in online gaming excess and addiction: Some case study evidence. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 119-125.

Griffiths, M.D. & Larkin, M. (2004). Conceptualizing addiction: The case for a ‘complex systems’ account. Addiction Research and Theory, 12, 99-102.

Kerr, J. S. (1996). Two myths of addiction: the addictive personality and the issue of free choice. Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental, 11(S1), S9-S13.

Kotov, R., Gamez, W., Schmidt, F., & Watson, D. (2010). Linking “big” personality traits to anxiety, depressive, and substance use disorders: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136(5), 768-821.

Larkin, M., Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Towards addiction as relationship. Addiction Research and Theory, 14, 207-215.

Marks, I. (1990). Behaviour (non-chemical) addictions. British Journal of Addiction, 85, 1389-1394.

Nakken, C. (2009). The addictive personality: Understanding the addictive process and compulsive behavior. Hazelden, Minnesota: Hazelden Publishing.

Nathan, P. E. (1988). The addictive personality is the behavior of the addict. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56(2), 183-188.

Don’t be square (beware): A brief look at “Rubik’s Cube addiction”

“The speed world record for a single attempt [of solving the Rubik’s Cube] is 5.55 seconds, set by Dutchman Mats Valk last year. The world championship is determined by averaging three attempts. The current champion is 18-year-old Australian Feliks Zemdeg who averaged 8.18 seconds last year. To ensure fairness, a computer generates a randomised cube which all the competitors are given. The record for most Rubik’s cubes solved in 24 hours is 4,786, set by Milan Baticz of Hungary…There is a one-handed world record – held by Zemdegs – of 9.03 seconds. Fakhri Raihaan of Indonesia boasts the feet-only record of 27.93 seconds” (BBC Magazine, April 2014).

Back in 1981, I was one of the hundreds of thousands of teenagers that spent far too much time playing on a Rubik’s Cube (RC). Once I had mastered how to do it, all my friends and I would sit at the back of our classes having RC races. In fact, I and two of my friends were once given a detention by my mathematics teacher for continuing to race each other despite many warnings to stop. My typical time to complete the puzzle was around 90 seconds (although having done it recently in trying to teach my children, I took nearer five minutes). The reason I recount this story is that a few days ago, a report appeared in the BBC News Magazine headlined “The people who are still addicted to the Rubik’s Cube” followed by one in The Guardian (‘Beyond the Rubik’s Cube: Inside the competitive world of speedcubing’). The author of the BBC article (Tom de Castella) noted that:

“In the 1980s Rubik’s Cubes seemed to be everywhere, but there are still legions of people obsessed with the coloured puzzles. The record for a human is 5.55 seconds. A robot can do it in 3.253…The Magic Cube was invented in 1974 by Hungarian architecture professor Erno Rubik. After being relaunched in 1980 as the Rubik’s Cube, it sold an estimated 350 million around the world.As an object it has charm – its colours, the distinctive rattle as the pieces turn, a pleasing feel in the hand…The traditional cube has six faces each with three squares by three. Every face is a different colour – white, red, blue, orange, green and yellow. That is, until the cube has been thoroughly scrambled. The challenge then is to return it to its original state with each side a single colour. It all relies on impressive engineering – an internal pivot allowing both the rows and columns to turn.It is devilishly difficult. There are said to be 43 quintillion permutations – the number of possible positions the cube can hold…Some see it as a challenge – like swimming the Channel or climbing Everest – that must be overcome. There was a spike in sales in the US in 2006, attributed to Will Smith‘s movie The Pursuit of Happyness, in which Smith’s homeless character solves a Rubik’s Cube and impresses a businessman… Extreme devotees find completing it easy. Their focus is on speed, stamina or overcoming extra obstacles – such as being blindfolded”.

Thinking back to my own RC playing days (or should that be ‘playing daze’?), I started off with the aim of trying to complete one side of the same colour, then one row, then two rows, and then three rows (i.e., a completed cube). Once I had mastered how to do it, the aim was to do it as fast as I could. Over time, the motivations and reasons for doing the puzzle changed. I spent more an more time doing it and I suppose I would describe it as a kind of tolerance (i.e., needing to spend more and more time playing it to feel good in a good mood). The notion that trying to complete the RC is addictive is not new. In fact, back in 1996, I published a paper on behavioural addictions in the Journal of Workplace Learning. One of my introductory paragraphs in that paper noted:

“There is now a growing movement (e.g. Miller, 1980; Orford, 1985) which views a number of behaviours as potentially addictive, including many behaviours which do not involve the ingestion of a drug. These include behaviours diverse as gambling (Griffiths, 1995), overeating (Orford, 1985), sex (Carnes, 1983), exercise (Glasser, 1976), computer game playing (Griffiths, 1993a), pair bonding (Peele and Brodsky, 1975), wealth acquisition (Slater, 1980) and even Rubik’s Cube (Alexander, 1981)! Such diversity has led to new all encompassing definitions of what constitutes addictive behaviour”.

In the BBC article, Tom de Castella reported the case of Hampshire builder Graham Parker who after 26 years of trying, finally solved the RC in 2009. Parker allegedly wept when he finally solved it even though the activity “caused him backache and put a strain on his marriage”.In the same article, IT worker Billy Jeffs learned to solve the RC after making a bet and claimed that “When you learn to solve it the first time you either get the bug or not. It’s quite hard to leave the house without one. I have three in my bag”.

Despite the BBC article using the word ‘addicted’ in the title, no-one interviewed was anywhere near to being addicted based on the quotes that de Castella cited. I’m also unaware of any academic research that has examined the excessive playing of RCs (let alone research that has examined any potential addiction). The reference I cited in my own 1996 paper on behavioural addictions was actually from a story in the New York Times by Ron Alexander. However, although the RC is described by Alexander as an “addictive invention” there is again little evidence that any of the people interviewed in the article were actually addicted.

As there appeared to be little evidence either in academic or journalistic articles, in the name of research I went searching on the internet for anecdotal evidence of RC addiction. There were the usual types of humour (such as ’50 reasons you know you’re addicted to speed solving [the Rubik’s Cube]’) and ‘Signs of Rubik’s Cube addiction’) but I did come across what appear to be some people that might be having problems with their RC use and/or urges to solve the puzzle. For instance:

  • Extract 1: “I Have recently been diagnosed with Rubik’s Cube Addiction Syndrome and it is getting out of control. Every time I try to stop, I cant put it down for five minutes! I just have to solve it! Everyone says it’s just a phase but I really don’t think it is”.
  • Extract 2: “I was once [a Rubik’s Cube] addict as well. And I decided since everyone thought it was dumb that I was obsessed with thing I would teach them how to solve a Rubik’s cube so they too saw the magic and became obsessed…I taught someone who got really good and caught on fast then challenged me to a showdown. Luckily I won …but unluckily I was so happy that I won I threw the cube on the ground like a touchdown in football and it burst into a million pieces all over the school till I lost some and had to buy a new one but never got around to it resulting in me becoming unobsessed with the thing”.
  • Extract 3: “I have been cubing for like 3 years now…maybe a little more. I don’t have the urge to solve a cube more than once, but if I see a cube that is unsolved, in a friend’s room, or anywhere that is unsolved, I want to pick it up and solve it. After I do that I usually just put it back down and forget about it though”.
  • Extract 4: Many cubers have been accused of addiction to the Rubik’s Cube at least once. What is it about a 3x3x3 cube that turns someone into a crazed speedsolver? It all seems to start the same way, an innocent mission to find the ‘how to’ and ‘why’ behind Rubik’s design. I had two friends in high school that knew how to solve the cube…I just needed to prove to myself that I could do it… There I was, completing a task that boggled most challengers. The first few days just the completion was enough for that warm and fuzzy feeling. Diminishing returns is a pain though, and the satisfaction wore off because the challenge of it wore off. My first recorded time for the 3x3x3 was over 5 minutes. Nervous fingers, shaking hands, and fuming inner dialogue…ahhh, yes, the good stuff. The second solve was sub-5 (under 5 minutes), and I got that warm fuzzy feeling again! Within a few days I was consistently under 2 minutes. ‘What if I can go a little faster?’ It was the question that drove me personally in my journey, and ultimately it is what grabs everyone”.
  • Extract 5: Rubik’s Cube is played very frequently because it is very addicting. Many people ‘infected’ by Rubik cube only because they see their friend or seller play the cube. Once somebody addicted by the cube, it will be very difficult to escape from the addiction. Rubik’s Cube is often played during the lessons and many of the players often ignore their teacher or their friends who ask something. They don’t respond quickly to their surroundings. They may become antisocial. They play alone and only focus to the cube. Rubik’s Cube also may cause mental and physical disorder. People who play Rubik’s Cube usually play it for many hours non-stop. It is dangerous for eyes. It makes the eyes focuses and work hard. Many of them sleep below 8 hours only to solve puzzle that not yet solved. It disturbs human metabolism activity that only can be happen while sleeping”.

Another article entitled ‘Rubik’s Cube 3×3 – Psychological Barriers and Addiction?!’ claimed that is rumored there was a divorce filed in the United States, with the basis for its request being a spouse obsessed with the Rubik’s Cube. I’m not sure if this is true and would love to find confirmation”.

Whether anyone has ever been genuinely addicted to the RC is highly debatable but there have been a few alleged medical conditions associated with excessive Rubik’s Cube use including ‘Rubik’s Wrist’ (“a reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome caused by hours of ‘speedcubing’ a Rubik’s Cube, which entails repeated rotation of the wrist”) and ‘Cuber’s Thumb’ (pretty much the same thing but applied to the thumb rather than the wrist and referred to in letters published in the early 1980s in both the Canadian Medical Association Journal and the New England Journal of Medicine). Although I have always claimed that almost any activity can become potentially addictive if the reward mechanisms are in place, I have yet to be convinced that there are any real RC addicts out there.

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

Further reading

Alexander, R. (1981). A cube popular in all circles. New York Times, 21 July, p. C6.

Glasser, W. (1976). Positive Addictions. Harper & Row, New York, NY.

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.

Orford, J. (1985). Excessive Appetites: A Psychological View of the Addictions. Wiley: Chichester.

Scheffler, I. (2014). Beyond the Rubik’s Cube: Inside the competitive world of speedcubing. The Guardian, May 2. Located at: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/may/02/rubiks-cube-competitive-world-speedcubing

Thompson, J. M. (1982). Cuber’s thumb. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 126(7), 773.

Waugh, D. (1981). Cuber’s thumb. New England Journal of Medicine, 305(13), 768

Wikipedia (2014). Rubik’s Cube. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubik’s_Cube

Internet addiction: How big a problem is it?

Yesterday, a study was reported in the British media that Chinese scientists had observed differences in the brains of people who obsessively use the internet similar to those found in people who have substance addiction. This led to the question of whether this was “proof that internet addiction exists”. I was asked for my comments by both the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph and I thought I would use my blog to put forward my own view on the topic.

There is currently a debate among psychologists and psychiatrists as to whether ‘Internet addiction’ constitutes a true addiction and should therefore be recognized as a psychiatric disorder in the American Psychiatric Association’s fifth edition of the forthcoming Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The past 15 years have produced many empirical studies demonstrating that a significant number of individuals appear to report psychological problems associated with excessive Internet use. The extent and severity of these problems may be somewhat overestimated because of the relatively low methodological quality of many studies in this area. Most studies have utilized inconsistent criteria to identify Internet addicts and/or have applied recruitment methods that may have caused serious sampling bias. More specifically in relation to Internet addiction criteria used in most studies, I have asserted in a number of my publications that the main problems with the measures used is that they tend to (i) have no measure of severity, (ii) have no temporal dimension, (iii) overestimate the prevalence of problems, and (iv) take no account of the context of Internet use.

In a number of published literature reviews, I have also argued that those working in the Internet addiction field need to distinguish between addictions on the Internet, and addictions to the Internet. My view is that most ‘Internet addicts’ are not addicted to the Internet itself, but use it as a medium to fuel other addictions. I have also used case study evidence to argue that some very excessive Internet users may not have any negative detrimental effects as a consequence of their behavior and therefore cannot even be classed as addicted. In short, a gambling addict who uses the Internet to gamble is a gambling addict not an Internet addict. The Internet is just the place where they conduct their chosen (addictive) behavior. However, I am the first to concede that I have also observed that some behaviors engaged on the Internet (e.g., cybersex, cyberstalking etc.) may be behaviors that the person would only carry out on the Internet because the medium is anonymous, non face-to-face, and disinhibiting.

For these reasons, it is often argued that problematic Internet behaviors may be more appropriately conceptualised within existing known psychopathologies such as depression or anxiety. Nevertheless, a number of researchers (including myself) have argued that Internet addictions do exist and can arise from unhealthy involvement in a range of online activities. These activities may include browsing websites, online information gathering, downloading or trading files online, online social networking, online video gaming, online shopping, online gambling, and various online sexual activities such as viewing pornography or engaging in simulated sexual acts.

While there is no consensus regarding the clinical status of Internet addiction, there appears to be significant demand for treatment for Internet-related problems, particularly in China, Taiwan and South Korea, where the estimated prevalence of Internet addiction problems among adolescents ranges from 1.6% to 11.3%. The South Korean government has reportedly established a network of over 140 counselling centres for treatment of Internet addiction, and have introduced treatment programs at almost 100 hospitals. In addition, numerous ‘boot camp’-style programs for Internet-addicted adolescents have emerged in both China and Korea. In Western countries, clinics specializing in the psychological treatment of computer-based addictions have also emerged, including: the Center for Online and Internet Addiction located in Bradford, Pennsylvania, United States; the Computer Addiction Study Center, McLean Hospital, Belmont, Massachusetts, United States; the Broadway Lodge residential rehabilitation unit located in Somerset, England; and the Smith & Jones 12-step (Minnesota Model) clinic located in Amsterdam, Holland. Additionally, there are some online providers of treatment services for Internet addiction (e.g., www.netaddiction.com; www.netaddictionrecovery.com; www.onlineaddiction.com.au), many of which are modelled on 12-step self-help treatment philosophies including specific types of groups such as Online Gamers Anonymous.

Available evidence suggests that, internationally, a large number of individuals with Internet-related problems have received some form of treatment from a mental health or medical service provider. However, very few studies have examined the effectiveness of any such treatments, including counselling, psychotherapy, or pharmacological interventions. The number of studies in this area is not as large as the number of studies examining the general features and correlates of Internet addiction, or as the number of studies of psychological treatment for other behavioral addictions, such as pathological gambling.

Very recently, I – along with colleagues from the University of Adelaide (Dr Daniel King and Professor Paul Delfabbro) – published a systematic review of the Internet addiction treatment literature. Our review investigated the reporting quality of treatment studies according to the 2010 Consolidating Standards of Reporting Trials (CONSORT) statement. Our evaluation of the studies we reviewed highlighted several key limitations, including (a) inconsistencies in the definition and diagnosis of Internet addiction, (b) a lack of randomization and blinding techniques, (c) a lack of adequate controls or other comparison groups, and (d) insufficient information concerning recruitment dates, sample characteristics, and treatment effect sizes.

There were also wider issues as to whether the people being treated in the studies evaluated were actually bona fide ‘Internet addicts’ as some of the people treated may have been addicted to a specific application or activity on the Internet (e.g., gaming, gambling, social networking) rather than being addicted to the Internet itself. We also stressed that research is also needed into whether addicts who use a particular medium to engage in their activity require different types of intervention and/or treatment. For instance, do Internet gambling addicts need or require different treatment interventions than gambling addicts who do not use the Internet to gamble?

Finally, there appears to be a significant need for consensus concerning the clinical definition of Internet addiction and possible sub-forms relating to particular Internet applications and/or activities. This theoretical obstacle, which has existed for over 15 years, has hindered progress in all areas of this field, including the development and validation of a recognised diagnostic tool. Our evaluation of the literature using the CONSORT criteria identified many areas of study design and reporting in need of improvement. In particular, there is a need for more randomized, controlled trials, in both the pharmacological and non-pharmacological intervention literature.

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

I would also like to thank Dr Daniel King and Professor Paul Delfabbro (University of Adelaide) for their additional input

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Technological addictions. Clinical Psychology Forum, 76, 14-19.

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

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Internet abuse and internet addiction in the workplace. Journal of Worplace Learning, 7, 463-472.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H., Griffiths, M.D. & Gradisar, M. (2011). Assessing clinical trials of Internet addiction treatment: A systematic review and CONSORT evaluation. Clinical Psychology Review, 31, 1110-1116.

Widyanto, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Internet addiction: A critical review. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 4, 31-51.

Widyanto, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Internet addiction: Does it really exist? (Revisited). In J. Gackenbach (Ed.), Psychology and the Internet: Intrapersonal, Interpersonal and Transpersonal Applications (2nd Edition), pp.141-163. New York: Academic Press.

Widyanto, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Unravelling the Web: Adolescents and Internet Addiction. In R. Zheng, J. Burrow-Sanchez & C. Drew (Eds.), Adolescent Online Social Communication and Behavior: Relationship Formation on the Internet. pp. 29-49. Hershey, Pennsylvania: Idea Publishing.

Widyanto, L., Griffiths, M.D. & Brunsden, V. (2011). A psychometric comparison of the Internet Addiction Test, the Internet Related Problem Scale, and Self-Diagnosis. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 14, 141-149.

Are parents right to worry about their children’s time online?

In households across the country the scene is the same. Hundreds of thousands of youngsters are spending countless hours on social networking sites like Facebook or on internet sites such as YouTube. Indeed, a survey published last year during National Family Week reported that among eight to 15-year-old children, 40% of girls claimed Facebook was the most important thing in their lives (compared to just 6% of boys). Meanwhile, another survey reported that only 10% children had ever penned a handwritten letter. So should these findings be a concern to parents, or to society in general?

Well, when I was at school, if I fancied someone I’d send them a handwritten note. Nowadays, teenagers have SMS, Twitter and Facebook. The youth of today are just using the technologies of the day in the same way we did when we were their age. I love it when I’m working abroad and my children send me emails and texts. Snail mail couldn’t (and wouldn’t) work in these situations. When I was a teenager I passively watched a lot of television. For today’s teenagers, television viewing appears to have been displaced by various forms of interactive social media. They probably spend as much time in front of the screen as I did – it’s just they have more choice and are more proactive than I ever was.

I have three children – one teenager and two ‘tweenagers’ – although I like to call them ‘screenagers’. Like me, all of them spend a significant amount of daily time in front of the Internet, video games, television, mobile phone screen and their iPads. But my daughter watching the latest Lady Gaga video on YouTube is really not that far removed from me waiting a whole week to see my favourite bands on Top Of The Pops. I just wish I’d had in my teenage years what my children have today.

Some have argued there’s a technological generation gap between parents and their children. For some, this may be so but as socially responsible parents we need to play a proactive role in our children’s lives and get to know what they’re up to online. Almost all of my childrens’ online computer use takes place in front of me. Whether I’m watching my young son play with his virtual friends on Club Penguin or my daughter dressing up cartoon girls on Star Dolls or watching my oldest son play Farmville on Facebook, I try to take an active interest in their online use.

The fact social networking sites appear to be so popular among girls is really no surprise. Comparing boys and girls, research has shown females tend to have better social skills and males often have better spatial ability. If this translates to online behaviour, I’d expect to see more girls engaged in social networking and more boys playing video games (which is what the empirical literature seems to show).

When I started researching the psychology of Internet behaviour back in 1994, there were isolated instances of people using the web to meet and date other like-minded users. Such behaviour was classed as strange and bizarre and these people were called ‘geeks’ and ‘anoraks’. Nowadays, the Internet is just another tool in peoples’ social armoury and used in almost every area of our lives.

Whether it’s work, romance or simply keeping in touch, it’s part of modern life and teenagers should be adept in using state-of-the-art technology – they’re certainly going to need it in the future. That’s not to say there aren’t downsides to children and teenagers using the Internet (such as the small minority who seem to be addicted to some online activities). One of the main reasons why behaviour online is very different from offline is because it provides a disinhibiting experience (a well known psychological phenomenon). This is where people lower their emotional guard and become much less restricted in their actions. The main reason for this is because when people are interacting with others online it’s non-face-to-face, non-threatening, and people perceive themselves to be anonymous.

On the positive side, this process can lead people to develop long-lasting friendships and sometimes fall in love online. On the negative side, people might do things online that they’d never dream of doing offline including, in some instances, criminal behaviour such as cyber-bullying and cyber-stalking. These people are engaged in text-based virtual realities and sometimes take on other personas and social identities as a way of making themselves feel good and raising their own self-esteem. Despite the negative side of online behaviour, there’s lots of evidence suggesting the Internet has a positive effect in most people’s lives. In short, for the vast majority of people, including screenagers, the advantages of being online, and on social networking websites, far outweigh the negatives.

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

Further reading

Bocij, P., Griffiths, M.D. & McFarlane, L. (2002). Cyberstalking: A new challenge for criminal law. The Criminal Lawyer, 122, 3-5.

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Cyber affairs – A new area for psychological research. Psychology Review, 7(1), 28-31.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Trends in technological advance: Implications for sedentary behaviour and obesity in screenagers. Education and Health, 28, 35-38.

Griffiths, M.D. & Kuss, D. (2011). Adolescent social networking: Should parents and teachers be worried? Education and Health, 29, 23-25.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The convergence of gambling and digital media: Implications for gambling in young people. Journal of Gambling Studies, 26, 175-187.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Addiction to social networks on the internet: A literature review of empirical research. International Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 8, 3528-3552.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Excessive online social networking: Can adolescents become addicted to Facebook? Education and Health, 29. 63-66.