Virtual Highs and Lows: How Real is 'Internet Addiction'?
In 2004, news broke of an American man, James Pacenza, who was suing his employer, IBM, for wrongful dismissal after he was fired for compulsively accessing adult chat rooms online while at his desk. However, Pacenza claimed his behaviour was an addiction precipitated by post-traumatic stress disorder, which he says he has suffered since 1969 when his best friend was killed while they were both on patrol together during the Vietnam War.
The lawsuit has since been dismissed and Pacenza's appeal against this dismissal was also revoked in February last year. It looks like Pacenza's claim against his employer is going nowhere and few would argue that IBM were wrong to expel an employee for repeatedly accessing sexually explicit content on company computer systems. The claim that internet addiction is what caused Pacenza's behaviour to develop, however, is of course what made the case noteworthy and it is often quoted as a sort of test case for the existence of such a disorder - and that is something still disputed by psychiatrists worldwide even though a few rehabilitation clinics have started offering treatment for internet addiction.
Today, the mainstream media has gleefully embraced a new piece of creeping evidence which appears to suggest that the internet can inspire an addiction akin to that experienced by drug abusers. "Internet addiction can be as harmful to teenagers' brains as cocaine and cannabis," warns the Daily Mail. Let's not forget that the internet addiction thing is a recurring, highly repetitive story. Netaddiction.com claims to have been tackling the problem since 1995, while an oft-quoted essay published in 1998 centralised the debate and suggested that such an addiction did exist. Ever since then, (for example, in 1999, 2004, 2005, 2008 and 2010) the mainstream media has obsessed over the notion that the internet is imminently to be exposed as the ultimate harbinger of our downfall, for whatever reason. According to traditional media, the apocalypse is encoded in the fabric of cyberspace in the same way that it is present in drugs, alcohol, weaponry and (to refer to that most ancient of evils) sex.
"But our demonization of the net ceases to promote any intelligent understanding of our interaction with the media we find there"
But our demonization of the net, a vast and complicated universe of information, ceases to promote any intelligent understanding of our interaction with the media we find there. A Guardian analysis of the news finally took the debate a little further today when Polly Curtis interviewed Colin Drummond, professor of addiction psychiatry at King's College London, who rightly said that much of the behaviour we ascribe as 'addictive' with regards to the internet in fact represents a symptom - not a cause - of a disorder. An individual with emotional problems or an existing pathology may well develop an addiction to certain kinds of internet content, but merely treating the compulsion to access that content itself would necessarily complicate and confuse the issue. What needs to be addressed in such cases, obviously, is the underlying trauma which has provoked the dissonant behaviour we perceive outwardly.
With Drummond's argument, I wholeheartedly agree. However, I don't feel that he goes far enough in acknowledging the aspects of websites, social media, chatrooms and online gaming which may prompt compulsive behaviour in people. Another study this week showed how levels of stress hormones (cortisol and oxytocin) in girls who had just taken a difficult exam dropped when they spoke to their mother on the telephone, but remained unchanged when they sent and received text messages. While this does not point directly towards addictive behaviour, it suggests that computer-mediated communication in a text-only context fails to provide the desired kind of chemical discharge that one would expect with other modes of interaction. Therefore, a desire to keep returning to the medium in question may be fostered precisely because it does not shock or stimulate our systems chemically. It's quick and easy to send an SMS, and we still feel productive when doing so - so when the deeper response is not felt, we likely react simply by trying again. Close and open the program once more, it might work this time.
Similarly, an eloquent piece from US magazine Kill Screen explores the addictiveness of a simple internet game called Clickistan (as well as our impulse to click that ubiquitous 'Like' button propagated by Facebook) by suggesting that we are compelled to engage with such things because of their aesthetically pleasing yet regressive 'productivity': "What of that repetition and redundancy that the game's first level so succinctly channels? As an aesthetic object, Clickistan's success seems to be in the way that it simultaneously replicates and energizes the sense of moving automatically through the web. Numbness develops into a vague situational awareness."
I am reminded too of the commuters who tap persistently at their smart-phone screens displaying outrageously simple game interfaces in an effort to pass what would otherwise be an uncomfortable and boring journey to work in a zoned-out way, focused on chucking the little digital ball of scrunched up paper into a pixelated rubbish bin, or steering a speeding vehicle away from hundreds of objects arbitrarily placed in its path by a machine mind.
We know full well that our activity online is repetitive and often mind-numbing. In situations where we become obsessed with such activity, the reasons for compulsion over such a monotonous preoccupation may well seem mysterious. I wonder if the behaviour exhibited in such situations is anything like the vacantly soothing repetitive exercise of hammering pegs through a wooden block and then turning it over to do the same again, endlessly, which is enjoyed by the male protagonist of Erlend Loe's minimalist novel, Naïve, Super. Are we, like Loe's lead character, exhibiting a fractured response to an all-too-intense existence by consoling ourselves with refreshingly plain banality?
I'd say it's entirely possible. In addition, the extreme cases of addiction exhibited by video gamers seem singular in their destructive patterns of dependency, and conversely, the high excitement of video gaming may be addictive in its own right. Personally I think this is a separate issue, and it is unfair to categorise games under the uselessly broad definition invited by 'internet addiction'. However, that's exactly what the Chinese study which hit headlines today seems to have done and it is from this confused perspective on our interaction with technology, which always needs to be addressed in the finest details, that we begin to lose sight of the emotions which underlie our behaviour.
We run the risk of perpetually diagnosing the diagnosis, of believing that the latest piece of technology we have created presents us with both the beginning and end of our problems. Pacenza's lawsuit against IBM may have been an example of the typically idealistic litigation common to American courtrooms, and one which was probably correctly dismissed by the appeals court, but even if there is no truth in Pacenza's claims about his chatroom addiction, the story still points far more interestingly than many of the articles I've read today towards an understanding of dissonant behaviour as a symptom of our troubled lives. Surely it is nothing more than a garish outpouring of monotony which, despite spooky parallels to the repetitive way machines carry out millions of tasks, is far more a product of our own minds than theirs.
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