Internet Addiction (IA) Disorder Studies: What do we know? Where are we in our understanding of IA?
Is interconnectedness real?
Is internet addiction for real? Our connection to the world via a screen and a router has evolved the human species. We have access to more information than EVER before. We can also connect in ways not yet known to man. This connectedness has changed over the past decades…from our homes via desktop computers…. to an extension of personalities…to a near permanent hand-attachment via our smartphones.
Yes, we are connected to the internet so much, that devices have become “normalized”, a natural presence in our everyday life. We are such internet-suckers that even scientists and researchers are looking at and studying human behavior and interaction online.
So, how do we behave when our permanent link to the web is gone? What do human interaction and behavior look like when we go offline?
What happens when we go cold turkey off the internet?
Even when we want to view our internet use as an informative, convenient, and even a fun activity…it tends to go overboard. While most individuals can use technology without experiencing negative consequences (and may even benefit from it) there are others whose preocupation with the internet has a negative impact on their:
In this interview, we speak with Martin Mihajlov, Ph.D. about a study/studies he will soon conduct to explore this very matter. Martin is an Assistant Professor in Computer Science, specifically interested in the field of human computer interaction.
Continue reading to learn more, and send us your questions by posting them in the comments section at the end. In fact, we try to respond PERSONALLY to all questions…especially if we can help refer to more information or to the resources that you need!
Internet Addiction disorder: THE INTERVIEW
ADDICTION BLOG: Hello Martin, and thank you for joining us today. You are someone who is interested in human-computer interaction. How did you first identify the need to research Internet Addiction as a diagnosable condition?
MARTIN MIHAJLOV: Hello back, Addiction Blog.
As you mentioned, my main area of research is human-computer interaction. It is a rather vast field of research which considers all aspects of how people interact with technology. As a matter of fact, with the rapid advent of modern technology this field has become so far-reaching that it now goes beyond humans with emerging fringe areas such as human-robot interaction or animal-computer interaction.
Considering all this, I began to wonder:
- What happens when humans stop interacting with computers?
- What happens when people get disconnected from this technologically-laden culture?
To find out I decided to observe how people behave when they no longer have Internet access. I devised an experiment wherein people voluntarily give up Internet access for a week. The experiment was initially conceived as a self-awareness anecdote, meaning that its goal was to make people aware how Internet affects their daily activities. However, due to high interest in participation it quickly turned from anecdote into a large-scale study with a well-defined experiment protocol.
ADDICTION BLOG: What is Internet Addiction (IA)? What is the difference between Internet Addiction and Cyberspace addictions?
MARTIN MIHAJLOV: Although the concept of Internet Addiction is rather recent (circa 1995), there are already many controversies and competing schools of thought. While the term “Internet Addiction” is most widely used, the “addiction” part was the first aspect that has been heavily criticized by peer scientists. Hence, there are many phrases which avoid using “addiction” such as:
- internet use disorder
- internet dependency
- pathological internet use
- problematic internet use
On the other hand, the Internet is a medium. Referring to a medium as being addictive is not suitable especially considering that many people use the Internet for regular everyday activities such as work. Therefore, it is necessary to distinguish “addictions over the Internet” from “addiction to the Internet”.
Excessive Internet users should not be viewed as Internet addicts, but as people who use the Internet as a medium to fuel their specific addictions. The Internet itself is not addictive, but it can be used as a channel towards addictions.
Therefore, Internet Addiction is now viewed as an umbrella term for a wide variety of behaviors and impulse control problems which include overindulgence in online content such as:
- social media
- and other similar (cyber) activities
ADDICTION BLOG: Are there any precise diagnostic criteria for diagnosing Internet Addiction? What are they?
MARTIN MIHAJLOV: There are diagnostic criteria, but considering the varying nature of Internet Addiction… these are not precise.
As a matter of fact, there are approximately 45 tools which measure and assess Internet Addiction through either scales, interviews or diagnostic criteria. Most of the tools are proposals and have not been verified and properly investigated. All of the tools are developed as self-report questionnaires using a theoretical basis and have no clinical validation. This implies that most of the reported scales require further examination before they can be used by researchers and/or clinicians as measures for assessment of Internet Addiction.
In my research, I used Young’s Internet Addiction Test, as it is one of the most well-established instruments for measuring Interned addiction. Nevertheless, the test is used only to make the most basic classification of participants in order to evaluate whether Internet excessiveness affects offline behavior.
ADDICTION BLOG: What does science say about the changes in our human brain as a result of internet over-exposure?
MARTIN MIHAJLOV: There are many different scientific approaches that report on brain changes. Some pharmacological treatment studies which use selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) support the existence of obsessive-compulsive behaviour. Results from neuroimaging experiments have shown neurobiological changes similar to those observed in substance addictions.
However, it is necessary to put all of the reported studies in context and avoid generalization. For example, before we jump to conclusions and make claims such as “neuroimaging experiments show that Internet Addiction is similar to substance addiction” it is necessary to know that neuroimaging will show addiction-like neurobiological changes even after we indulge in a very tasteful meal.
ADDICTION BLOG: Could you tell us more about your research? Why did you choose Millenials as the target group for your research?
MARTIN MIHAJLOV: The main reason for using Millenials is rather obvious, they are currently the most connected generation active in all layers of society. They feel comfortable around technology. Unlike previous generations they grew up with computers in their homes and went online at a young age.
Unlike upcoming generations (e.g. Generation Z), they are old enough to use the Internet for a wider spectre of activities, not just entertainment and socialization.
ADDICTION BLOG: Do people who are preocupied with the internet display similar withdrawal and craving symptoms to people who are quitting a chemical addiction?
MARTIN MIHAJLOV: Yes and no.
In line with the previously mentioned approaches to defining Internet Addiction terminology, there are varying conceptualizations for symptoms. Researchers have proposed at least three different ways of viewing Internet Addiction behavior:
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Impulse control disorder, and
- Addictive disorder
Obsessive compulsive disorder simply means that the person has an intrusive anxiety to repetitively perform the same action. In an Internet environment this can be synonymous with the urge to constantly check an email account, or a personal Facebook feed.
Impulse-control disorders are characterized as an impaired inhibition to engage in repetitive behaviors. Internet use can be characterised as impulsive when individuals have an increased sense of tension or arousal before connecting to the Internet, and a relief of that tension once they are online.
Finally, the addictive disorder approach conceptualizes Internet Addiction as a “behavioral addiction” similar to a substance use disorder.
Some of the basic “symptoms” people exhibit when they quit the Internet are similar to substance abuse symptoms (ex. craving). However, in most cases the more prominent substance-abuse symptoms such as tension, panic attacks, short-term memory loss or any symptoms affecting physical health are simply not present.
ADDICTION BLOG: How did research participants deal with cases of internet access need? Did anyone relapse or quit?
MARTIN MIHAJLOV: Supplementing internet access need depended on the actual situation. For example, instead of messaging their friends they would call them. This might seem rather normal, but for most Millenials calling is simply not the preferred method of communication, especially for trivialities.
In other situations participants would engage in the most similar offline activity, like watching cable TV instead of watching YouTube videos or reading newspapers/magazines/books instead of browsing the web.
Many participants organized their offline-time around a variety of outdoor activities in order to avoid the urge to go online. They would either engage in sport activities or simply hang out with friends. In the latter situation, the plan often backfired when all of the friends would pick-up their mobile device to check the current state of their online life.
The drop out rate was surprisingly low, somewhere between 5% and 10%.
ADDICTION BLOG: As a human computer interaction researcher, do you think there are ways we can be more cautious with giving our lives over to the internet? Do you have any tips for our readers based on provided feedback from your research participants?
MARTIN MIHAJLOV: The Internet is a disruptive technology. It has altered many aspects of our everyday lives and as it continues to evolve, it will affect us even more. The distinctions between our online and offline lives are continuously blurred as ubiquitous technology permeates our environment. Actually, this online/offline life distinction is becoming almost indiscernible for younger generations who are born in a world where online is a way of life since birth.
Like with all things physical or virtual that can affect us to a greater or lesser degree the answer is simple. Moderation. Easy to say, difficult to implement
ADDICTION BLOG: Do you see a need for further academic research of the impact of the internet on humans and Internet Addiction? What are the anecdotal stories from people who tried to live without Internet?
MARTIN MIHAJLOV: Living without Internet or technology in general is becoming an oddity. And oddities are always an interesting topic to research.
As for anecdotal offline stories I can share some from my research. During their 1 week offline, all of the participants kept a physical paper diary of their activities. It is interesting to observe that they are generally OK in the first couple of days after which they genuinely start to miss being online. On their last day they are actually ecstatic as they know that their offline endeavour is about to end.
In his everyday life, a male participant generally indulges in online sport content. He avoids the Internet by going out as much as possible. From day 2 he starts playing soccer with his friends and successfully attempts to repeat this activity two more times during the rest of the week. He buys a newspaper to keep up to date with current sport content, although it is obvious it is yesterday’s news. When he can’t play sports, he watches TV. He finds that watching TV is awkward as he can’t really select the actual content he wants to watch, but is limited to what is currently being offered.
A female participants wants to know the name of a song. She can find another way to obtain this information and decides to wait it out. She also wants to check the weather and has to ponder a while before she realizes the information can be found in a newspaper. Instead of being online she watches previously downloaded series or movies. She misses Facebook, especially since some of her friends start calling her to ask whether she is alive and well due to her online absence. While she deals with the many situations where she needs to resist her online cravings she starts to wonder whether this is how alcoholics feel when they have to say NO to a glass of whiskey.
ADDICTION BLOG: Is there anything that we missed to ask you during this interview that you’d like to add for our readers?
MARTIN MIHAJLOV: If anyone is interested in my research they can contact me directly. Otherwise, they can keep their eyes open for a few interesting papers coming up in 2017.
Photo credit: Marcelo Graciolli