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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.

Net gains: A brief overview of our recent papers on Internet addiction

Following my recent blogs where I outlined some of the papers that I and my colleagues have published on mindfulness, I got a couple of emails asking if I could do the same thing on other areas that we have been researching into. So, here it is.

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.

  • Introduction: Recent research has examined the context in which preference for specific online activities arises, leading researchers to suggest that excessive Internet users are engaged in specific activities rather than ‘generalized’ Internet use. The present study aimed to partially replicate and expand these findings by addressing four research questions regarding (i) participants’ preferred online activities, (i) possible expected changes in online behavior in light of hypothetical scenarios, (iii) perceived quality of life when access to Internet was not possible, and (iv) how participants with self-diagnosed Internet addiction relate to intensity and frequency of Internet use. Methods: A cross-sectional design was adopted using convenience and snowball sampling to recruit participants. A total of 1057 Internet users with ages ranging from 16 to 70 years (Mean age= 30 years, SD = 10.84) were recruited online via several English-speaking online forums. Results: Most participants indicated that their preferred activities were (i) accessing general information and news, (ii) social networking, and (iii) using e-mail and/or online chatting. Participants also reported that there would be a significant decrease of their Internet use if access to their preferred activities was restricted. The study also found that 51% of the total sample perceived themselves as being addicted to the Internet, while 14.1% reported that without the Internet their life would be improved. Conclusions: The context in which the Internet is used appears to determine the intensity and the lengths that individuals will go to use this tool. The implications of these findings are further discussed.

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.

  • Research into Internet addiction (IA) has grown rapidly over the last decade. The topic has generated a great deal of debate, particularly in relation to how IA can be defined conceptually as well as the many methodological limitations. The present review aims to further elaborate and clarify issues that are relevant to IA research in a number of areas including: definition and characterization, incidence and prevalence rates, associated neuronal processes, and implications for treatment, prevention, and patient-specific considerations. It is concluded that there is no consensual definition for IA. Prevalence rates among nationally representative samples across several countries vary greatly (from 1% to 18.7%), most likely reflecting the lack of methodological consistency and conceptual rigor of the studies. The overlaps between IA and other more traditional substance-based addictions and the possible neural substrates implicated in IA are also highlighted. In terms of treatment and prevention, both psychological and pharmacological treatments are examined in light of existing evidence alongside particular aspects inherent to the patient perspective. Based on the evidence analyzed, it is concluded that IA may pose a serious health hazard to a minority of people.

Lai, C-L., Mak, K-K., Cheng, C., Watanabe, H., Nomachi, S., Bahar, N., Young, K.S., Ko, H-C., Kim, D. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Measurement invariance of Internet Addiction Test among Hong Kong, Japanese, and Malaysian adolescents: An item response analysis. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 18, 609-617.

  • There has been increased research examining the psychometric properties on the Internet Addiction Test (IAT) in different populations. This population-based study examined the psychometric properties and measurement invariance of the IAT in adolescents from three Asian countries. In the Asian Adolescent Risk Behavior Survey (AARBS), 2,535 secondary school students (55.9% girls) aged 12-18 years from Hong Kong (n=844), Japan (n=744), and Malaysia (n=947) completed a survey in 2012-2013 school year. A nested hierarchy of hypotheses concerning the IAT cross-country invariance was tested using multigroup confirmatory factor analyses. Replicating past findings in Hong Kong adolescents, the construct of the IAT is best represented by a second-order three-factor structure in Malaysian and Japanese adolescents. Configural, metric, scalar, and partial strict factorial invariance was established across the three samples. No cross-country differences on Internet addiction were detected at the latent mean level. This study provided empirical support for the IAT as a reliable and factorially stable instrument, and valid to be used across Asian adolescent populations.

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.

  • Kimberly Young’s initial work on Internet addiction (IA) was pioneering and her early writings on the topic in- spired many others to carry out research in the area. Young’s (2015) recent paper on the ‘evolution of Internet addiction’ featured very little European research, and did not consider the main international evidence that has contributed to our current knowledge about the conceptualization, epidemiology, etiology, and course of Internet-related disorders. This short commentary paper elaborates on important literature omitted by Young that the present authors believe may be of use to researchers. We also address statements made in Young’s (2015) commentary that are incorrect (and therefore misleading) and not systematically substantiated by empirical evidence.

Stavropoulos, V., Kuss, D.K., Griffiths, M.D. & Motti-Stafanidi, F. (2016). A longitudinal study of adolescent internet addiction: The role of conscientiousness and classroom hostility. Journal of Adolescent Research, in press.

  • Over the last decade, research on Internet addiction (IA) has increased. However, almost all studies in the area are cross-sectional and do not examine the context in which Internet use takes place. Therefore, a longitudinal study examined the role of conscientiousness (as a personality trait) and classroom hostility (as a contextual factor) in the development of IA. The participants comprised 648 adolescents and were assessed over a 2-year period (while aged 16-18 years). A three-level hierarchical linear model was carried out on the data collected. Findings revealed that (a) lower conscientiousness was associated with IA and this did not change over time and (b) although being in a more hostile classroom did not initially have a significant effect, it increased girls’ IA vulnerability over time and functioned protectively for boys. Results indicated that the contribution of individual and contextual IA factors may differ across genders and over time. More specifically, although the protective effect of conscientiousness appeared to hold, the over-time effect of classroom hostility increased the risk of IA for girls. These findings are discussed in relation to the psychological literature. The study’s limitations and implications are also discussed.

Ostovar, S., Allahyar, N., Aminpoor, H. Moafian, F., Nor, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Internet addiction and its psychosocial risks (depression, anxiety, stress and loneliness) among Iranian adolescents and young adults: A structural equation model in a cross-sectional study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, in press.

  • Internet addiction has become an increasingly researched area in many Westernized countries. However, there has been little research in developing countries such as Iran, and when research has been conducted, it has typically utilized small samples. This study investigated the relationship of Internet addiction with stress, depression, anxiety, and loneliness in 1052 Iranian adolescents and young adults. The participants were randomly selected to complete a battery of psychometrically validated instruments including the Internet Addiction Test, Depression Anxiety Stress Scale, and the Loneliness Scale. Structural equation modeling and Pearson correlation coefficients were used to determine the relationship between Internet addiction and psychological impairments (depression, anxiety, stress and loneliness). Pearson correlation, path analysis, multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA), and t-tests were used to analyze the data. Results showed that Internet addiction is a predictor of stress, depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Findings further indicated that addictive Internet use is gender sensitive and that the risk of Internet addiction is higher in males than in females. The results showed that male Internet addicts differed significantly from females in terms of depression, anxiety, stress, and loneliness. The implications of these results are discussed.

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

Further reading

Billieux, J., Deleuze, J., Griffiths, M.D., & Kuss, D.J. (2015). Internet addiction: The case of massively multiplayer online role playing games. In N. El-Guebaly, M. Galanter, & G. Carra (Eds.), The Textbook of Addiction Treatment: International Perspectives (pp.1516-1525). New York: Springer.

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

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.

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.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H., Griffiths, M.D. & Gradisar, M. (2012). Cognitive-behavioural approaches to outpatient treatment of Internet addiction in children and adolescents. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 68, 1185-1195.

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

Kuss, D.J., Griffiths, M.D. & Binder, J. (2013). Internet addiction in students: Prevalence and risk factors. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 959-966.

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.

Kuss, D.J., Shorter, G.W., van Rooij, A.J., Griffiths, M.D., & Schoenmakers, T.M. (2014). Assessing Internet addiction using the parsimonious Internet addiction components model – A preliminary study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 351-366.

Kuss, D.J., van Rooij, A.J., Shorter, G.W., Griffiths, M.D. & van de Mheen, D. (2013). Internet addiction in adolescents: Prevalence and risk factors. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 1987-1996.

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. (2011). Unravelling the Web: Adolescents and Internet Addiction. In Virtual Communities: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools and Applications (pp. 2433-2453). Hershey, Pennsylvania: Idea Publishing.