by Chuck Ruby, Ph.D.
A recent article in Health News From NPR asks the question: "Is 'Internet Addiction' Real?" Other than the possible minimizing effects of using quotes around the term, this article does nothing but reify a concept in a very misleading and potentially dangerous way. It adds to a long line of others that perpetuate the myth of mental illness, and in particular the recent technological phenomenon of social media over the Internet.
This article is an example of how mental health professionals are notorious for over-complicating human behavior. Instead of focusing on real life problems teens face in an increasingly compliance oriented and superficial world, they obsesses about what is the correct “disorder”. Then the “disorder” is the focus of investigation instead; meaning that something is wrong with the teen. To quote the DSM, it is “…a dysfunction in the individual.” It is the dysfunction “in” that causes the behavior. And this leads to meaningless questions as posed in the article, like “when does an obsession become an addiction?” Would it be better to think of these professionals having a “diagnosis addiction”?
In actuality, there is no dysfunction “in the individual”. There is a challenge over how, when, why, and to what extent technology is used and what things are considered popular and of value to teens. Internet and other IT technology is going to stay with us and probably get even more complex. My great grandmother told me how terrible the invention of the telephone was. Up until then people would write letters to each other. After the telephone, she feared they wouldn't write to each other anymore. Instead, they would become impersonal and spend too much time on the telephone. Her fears panned out. But was that an addiction at work?
Much of the description of Naomi’s behavior in this article is attributed to her “addiction” to the internet. But it actually just describes typical teen turmoil in their attempts to navigate that line between separation and belonging. But once a scapegoat like “addiction” is identified all sorts of problems can be attributed to it. The article actually points this out when it notes she also had to deal with how to become popular among her peers, how to cope with her parents’ discord, how to handle less then perfect academic performance, and how to cope with the death of her grandmother. These are all quite typical challenges of adolescence.
The overall flavor of this article reminds me of the alarmist quality of “Reefer Madness”, a 1930’s film that demonized marijuana, and implied that it led to all sorts of antisocial and dangerous behaviors. The psychologist at her $10,000 a week “treatment” facility said, “these teens are using smartphones and tablets…for the same reasons others turn to hard drugs - to numb what is really going on inside.” Really? Is that what doctors in the 1800’s would have said about my great grandmother’s prediction about telephone use?
The problems facing teens are significant and they can be very serious. But it is not because they “have” and “addiction” to anything. It is because they are faced with the most difficult set of social circumstances any teenagers throughout history have had to face before now. They struggle with the means of instantaneous gratification, the ever-increasing demand of consumerism, the age-old longing to belong, and how to meet parental expectations.
The term “addiction” is merely short hand for “a strong urge to do something because that something is enjoyable in the short term, but causes problems in the long term.” There is no need to reify it as if it is an entity that invades people and causes them to do things. In fact, it could easily be argued that talking about it and treating it as if it were some alien entity calling the shots is harmful and perpetuates the problem.