It’s an old sci-fi theme — a future world in which people connect with each other only through virtual reality, never in person. According to experts, that concept has already become reality for some who find themselves so addicted to technology that they’re losing sight of the real world. While many of us joke with each other about being addicted to email or to our Blackberries, it’s no laughing matter for some people.
In fact, the American Psychiatric Association has been exploring the idea of including a category for Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Health Disorders (DSM-IV), which is the diagnostic bible for mental health practitioners. Some health professionals object, claiming that heavy use of technology does not constitute addiction, but others insist that some users do, in fact, display many of the characteristics of addiction.
In an editorial in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Dr. Jerald J. Block, notes that one of the key characteristics of any type of addiction is excessive use — so excessive that it interferes with other life functions. Internet addicts, he says, do engage in excessive use, cruising the net instead of finishing important work or meeting social obligations. Addicts also suffer from withdrawal when they can’t indulge their habit, and internet addicts become depressed, anxious, or irritable when denied internet access. They also experience tolerance, another hallmark of addiction, meaning that they require more and more internet time and ever new internet avenues to feed their need. Finally, their habit may lead to negative repercussions such as fatigue from lack of sleep, arguments over time spent cruising, social isolation, and so on — again, all key markers of addiction.
Dr. Block suggests that internet addiction has three subtypes, which he assigns as “excessive gaming, sexual preoccupations, and e-mail/text messaging.” He doesn’t mention cruising the social networking boards or compulsive My Spacing and Facebooking, certainly preoccupations for many these days. Twittering, on the other hand, would probably qualify as a variant of text messaging. His view that internet use can become compulsive is supported by Dr. John O’Neill, director of addictions services for the Menninger Clinic in Houston, who explains, “Technology can become more than a passing problem and more like an addiction. You become irritable when you can’t use it. The internet goes down and you lose your mind. You start to hide your use.” Meanwhile, the Computer Addiction Study Center at Harvard University estimates that up to 10% of internet users are addicts. And considering how many users there are, that would be a huge number.
On the other side of the issue, Robert A. Zucker, director of the Addiction Research Center at the University of Michigan, says, “People use the term ‘addiction’ pretty indiscriminately, without considering the formal criteria that need to be met. I am not aware of any work that has formally examined whether persons who make heavy use of cell phones, Blackberries and the like meet these criteria, but until that happens, I remain skeptical of the characterization. It is trendy but not scientific.” And the American Society for Addiction Medicine insists that more research needs to be done to differentiate internet addiction from other disorders such as compulsion, obsession, and self-medication for depression.
Whether or not it’s an addiction, spending hours cruising the net every day probably has negative repercussions beyond the psychological impact. For one thing, there are the ergonomic issues. Too many people sit hunched over their computer for long stretches of time instead of engaging in more vigorous activities, inviting repetitive strain injuries. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, at least 1.89 million people in the US have Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Then, a 2006 study at Stellenbosch University in Tygerberg, South Africa, found that about 16 percent of students who spent fewer than five hours on the computer weekly reported neck pain, compared to 48 percent of those who were on the computer 25 to 30 hours each week. Any chiropractor will reveal that they see numerous patients suffering from computer-related back and shoulder trauma, not to mention carpal tunnel syndrome and texting thumb injury.
Eye problems also can result from excess computer use. While most users know that eyestrain is a possibility, few realize that more serious eye diseases have been linked with heavy computer use. A 2004 Japanese study of 10,000 workers found a significant link between long-term, heavy computer use and the development of glaucoma, particularly in people with myopia.
And then there’s the Electromagnetic Frequency Radiation (EMF) factor. Certainly there’s evidence that the older style CRT monitors, for those who still use one, emit significant levels of EMFs, and that EMFs might contribute to the development of a host of health problems ranging from birth defects and miscarriages to cardiovascular problems and cancer.
If internet use is creating physical problems for you, follow the advice of the ergonomic experts. Position your keyboard at the proper height, use arm rests, get up from your computer station and walk around frequently, flex wrists, roll shoulders, and so on. Blink frequently and rest the eyes as often as possible, and keep the monitor out of glare and at least three feet away from you.
And if you worry that your computer use has become an addiction, you can take this internet addiction test to check it out. No matter your score, if your hours on the internet have become a substitute for having a real life, you might consider getting some psychotherapy or coaching, or simply calling some friends to arrange for in-person fun together.
PS: Please note that the hours you spend on jonbarron.org pouring over the blogs, newsletter archives, and video and audio files is a totally different matter and does not count as part of any addiction total. In fact, it should be considered positive, high-value, life-affirming time. Really!