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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.

Google surf: What does the search for sex online say about someone?

I recently read a transcript of a radio interview where Shankar Vedantam (the Science Correspondent of US National Public Radio) was talking about how analyzing Google searches could tell us things of national importance about what is happening before they reached the relevant public authorities. He gave a lovely example:

“A year or so ago, the folks at Google realized that as the flu was spreading from state to state, people’s search terms were changing. So people would search for things like ‘What do I do if I have a sore throat?’ or ‘What do I do if my child is running a high temperature?’. And by tracking these searches, Google discovered, long before public health authorities discovered, how the flu was spreading from state to state”.

Such observations tend to suggest that what people use online search engines for and what they type into them can be a useful indicant of human behaviour. But is the same true for sexual behaviour? A recent report in the Indian Times revealed that the people of Pakistan had the most searches for ‘sex’ on Google in 2011 (followed by India in second place) using Google Trends software. More interestingly, in an article by Alan Dunn for Business Insider (Top Google Searches – What do People Search for?) reported that:

The keywords sex, porn, free porn and porno pretty much blow any other keywords out of the water. The amount of exact match volume for these 4 terms alone is 22,820,000 searches a month. Individually they are ‘porn’ (11,100,000), free porn’ (7,480,000), sex’ (2,740,000), [and] porno’ (1,500,000). Sex is obviously not bad. It’s more popular than ever”.

Last year, Dr. Ogi Ogas and Dr. Sai Gaddam published their book A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What The Internet Tells Us About Sexual Relationships. Their book was an academic study of what people worldwide looked for sexually when they went online. As the title of their book suggests, they analysed millions of anonymous Web searches, pornographic websites, erotic videos, etc. The authors used the Dogpile search engine to analyse data from the major search engines (e.g., Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc.). Ogas and Gaddam’s book provided us with what the New York Post (NYP) claimed was “the most complete survey yet of our collective sexual id”. Maureen Callahan (who wrote the piece for the NYP) noted that there were many surprising findings. For instance:

“Straight men enjoy a wider variety of erotica than imagined, including sites devoted to elderly women and transsexuals. Foot fetishes aren’t a deviance; men are evolutionarily wired to look for small feet, which are a sign of high estrogen production, which itself is a sign of fertility. Gay men and straight men have nearly identical brains, and their favorite body parts, in order of preference, line up exactly: chests, buttocks, feet. Straight men prefer heavy women to thin ones. Straight women enjoy reading about and watching romances between two men – it’s not about the sex, which is downplayed, but the emotion, which is the focus. (The largest audience for ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ says the book, was straight women.) Straight men have a fascination with other men’s penises, which may be conscious or unconscious”.

In an interview with the NYP, Dr. Ogas said that “sex therapists haven’t known which interests are common and which are rare. We probably now know more than ever before.” He and Gaddam ranked the most popular terms types into the world’s leading search engines and compiled a ‘Top 10 sex terms list. The leading search terms related to sex were: youth (13.5%), gay (4.7%), MILFs (4.3%), breasts (4%), cheating wives (3.4%), vaginas (2.8%), penises (2.4%), amateurs (approx. 1%), mature (approx. 1%), and animation (1%). The data was analysed in great detail. The NYP article by Callahan reported that based on Ogas and Gaddam’s study:

Men fantasize about group sex far more than women and picture more men than women in the action. Straight men prefer to watch amateur porn online, and the authors theorize it’s because of perceived authenticity – a fake orgasm, it turns out, may be as disappointing as one in real life. One of the most popular and diverse areas of interest in sexuality is domination and submission, with straight women and gay men most interested in the latter role. Gay men enjoy straight porn in large numbers….Straight males enjoy a wide variety of erotica, including sites featuring transsexuals and elderly women. The study also found that both gay and straight men favor chests, buttocks and feet (in that order)”.

US academic Professor Donald Symons, one of the world’s leading evolutionary psychologists, was quick to point out some of the book’s flaws and did not seem to be persuaded that what people searched for online necessarily was directly related to what people found sexually desirable. For example, does the fact that someone watches ‘granny porn’ or transsexual sex indicate that they find it sexually alluring? Symons argues they may just be viewing such material out of curiosity. Symons was quoted as saying:

“One of the first things I asked Ogi about was curiosity versus arousal. Ogi is convinced that when people are searching for things, it’s primarily for sexual arousal. I’m not so sure about that. If there was a porn star with three breasts — I bet there would be a zillion hits. Would that be a sign men were suddenly aroused by that? I think not…If it had been the case that women were just like men, but society had been repressing women and once they’re online, they seek the exact mirror-image of porn – that could’ve happened. But it didn’t…The research shows that men, as evolutionary science has long held, are stimulated visually, while women require a host of stimuli – context, emotion, verbal expression…What would be really shocking would be fetish sites devoted to acne suffers, or people with no teeth – signifiers of poor health and high reproductive risk. I don’t necessarily think that all men are searching for women with clear skin, one head and two breasts. But when you’re doing a search, you’re usually looking for things that are uncommon”.

This is why Symons thinks there is lots of online searching for transsexual pornography. I also agree with Symons that the data that Ogas and Gaddam collected wasn’t based on a representative sample of online users (only those who typed in sexual words to search engines), and no-one knows what motivated the search. If anyone checked out my online surfing habits, there is no way anyone could infer what I liked sexually because almost all of what I type into search engines is for research purposes. Given the amount of coverage I devote to paraphilic behaviour in my blog, it’s not surprising that the sites I look at say little about my own sexual desires and sexuality.One of the arguments that Ogas and Gaddam have put forward is their assertion that sexual deviance is to all intents and purposes a myth. In his NYP interview, Ogas claimed:

“People who are attracted to mirrors, or to beards, or get turned on by ants in their pants – these are cases that, until now, have been diagnosed by clinicians who’ve seen patients. The Internet gives us a far better sense – rough, but still – of what is a likely anomaly and what is a far more common predilection. We discovered things even Kinsey didn’t know. Foot fetishes, for example, are common across all cultures. The discovery may lead to a re-classification; perhaps someday, the male interest in feet will be considered as normal an interest as breast size or facial attractiveness”.

Ogas is adamant that people who look at unusual sexual behaviour online are attracted to it. In response to Professor Symons’ view that most of the unusual viewing online may be curiosity-based, Ogas (again in his NYP interview) believes that his research:

“Proves that men who look at elderly women are actually turned on by elderly women. There are forums where men talk about picking up grannies, the kinds that they like. We studied AOL search histories over a period of months – if someone’s just curious, they’re not going to spend money for a subscription to a site, or search for something over and over again”.

I thought I’d end today’s blog with a little local analysis of my own. As my regular readers will aware, my own blog has its fair share of articles on sexual behaviour, and I always take an interest in what people are searching for to click onto my blog. Well here is a little insight for you. On October 15 (2012), I looked at all the search terms that people had used to locate my blog (which on that day I had a total number of page hits of around 115,000). I excluded all searches where people had typed in my name or ‘Mark Griffiths’ Blog’. Here are the top search terms that managed at least 50 hits:

My initial observations are that most people that stumble upon my blog are people interested in paraphilias (as the highest non-paraphilic term was ‘nose picking’ at 14, and 34 of the top 40 search terms are paraphilia-based). It certainly looks as though ‘sex sells’ even at a local level like my blog.

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

Further reading

Callahan, M. (2012). You’re not as kinky as you think: Massive Internet study finds that we’re all sexual deviants, New York Post, January 22: Located at: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/books/you_re_not_as_kinky_as_you_think_PLXiPzN4aUnTjKK1asmWMK/0

Dunn, A. (2011). Top Google Searches – What do People Search for? Business Insider, December 21. Located at: http://www.businessinsider.com/top-google-searches-what-do-people-search-for-2011-12

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

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). The use of online methodologies in studying paraphilia: A review. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, in press.

Indian Times (2011). Pak tops Google search for sex, December 30. Located at: http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-12-30/internet/30572457_1_google-trends-fox-news-report-searches

Ogas, O. & Gaddam, S. (2011). A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What The Internet Tells Us About Sexual Relationships. Syracuse, NY: E.P. Dutton & Co Inc.

Smith, C. (2011). Top 10 Internet Search Terms About Sex: Study (Update). Huffington Post, April 26. Located at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/26/sex-study-internet-search-terms_n_854034.html

Werheimer, L. & Vedantam, S. (2012). Google searches are a window into our culture. Located at: http://www.npr.org/2012/01/02/144572891/google-searches-are-a-window-into-our-culture