Internet addiction

Internet addiction is soon to be considered a psychiatric disorder.

There’s no doubting the value of the internet. A virtual personalized library, it makes information on every conceivable topic available at the touch of the fingertips and provides services from internet banking and online shopping to social networking.

But overuse of the internet is something else altogether.

Psychiatrists say that internet addiction—or internet-use disorder, as it’s sometimes called—is such a problem that they’re about to class it as a mental disorder. From May, the psychiatric profession’s manual of mental disorders—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV)—will include internet-use among its list of disorders and recommend it for further study.

The Australian Psychological Society has approved the addition to the DSM, but said that it doesn’t go far enough. ‘A broader issue is that many other potential behavioral addictions may also be considered for inclusion over time, as technology or social behaviors change’ it said in its submission on the revision.

(‘Submission to the American Psychiatric Association by the Australian Psychological Society on DSM-5 Draft Criteria’, 15.06.12.)

Grant Brecht a psychologist with 25 years of experience and Director of Grant Brecht and Associates.

Australian clinical psychologist Grant Brecht sees many clients with internet addiction. He believes classifying the condition as a mental health disorder is useful because it will help raise awareness about the condition and draw it to the forefront of clinicians’ awareness.

‘I do think it is useful because so many people are using the internet for long periods of time. Clinically people are getting all sorts of reactions to this,’ he told EMR and Health.

Brecht says that quite a lot of the clients he sees with this disorder have phobias or relationship problems. They tend to use the internet for relationships, rather than getting out and mixing in society. Using the internet in this way allows people to connect, but not in the way where they are in face-to-face contact and can touch and see each other. ‘It’s superficial engagement,’ he says. ‘People are social animals and miss the intimate connection and engagement with others.’ The sort of connection they have on the internet, he believes, can build depressive and anxiety disorders.

Recognising internet addiction is not always easy. Brecht says that, like other addictions, it can creep up on a person slowly over time so that they don’t recognise that they are becoming addicted. ‘Often it’s the family that recognise it first,’ he says.

Recognising internet addiction

One of the important indications of internet addiction is anger, says Brecht. ‘People start to feel irritable when they can’t spend time on the internet.

They’re distracted from other activities. They’re forever waiting to get back on the internet.’

Another indication is loss of social contact. He is consulted by lots of parents concerned about their children sitting in front of a screen for four hours at a time, who are not getting out, mixing with other children and playing in team sports.

‘When more than four hours a day is involved, it can be quite maladaptive,’ he says.

Avoiding addiction

According to Brecht, avoiding internet addition is about ‘taking commonsense into common practice’.

He recommends that people use the internet to communicate in short bursts, then get out into the real world to engage with others face-to-face.

‘Don’t spend more than an hour at a time before mixing it with other activities,’ he suggests.

Brecht advises parents to keep an eye on their children and try not to let them spend too much time on the internet. ‘It’s better to intervene earlier rather than later,’ he believes. Parents should avoid the temptation to use the internet as a babysitter while they’re occupied with other activities.

from 'EMR and Health' March 2013, vol 9 no 1