Transfixed by tech

In an age of constant communication and free WiFi, how can you tell when your internet use has become an addiction?

The amount of time we spend looking at our tech devices is now a favourite source of hand-wringing. There are moans from parents, worrying that their children are spending hours in their room playing online games instead of taking a walk outside. There are the dates being annoyed by their dinner companions, who rather scroll through social media than focus on the person sitting right next to them. And of course, there is one’s own compulsive need to check the endless stream of text messages, tweets, posts, snaps.

This is the new normal that we’ve become accustomed to, and for the most part, the world is still turning. Then there are the extreme stories of a simple internet habit gone too far.

In South Korea, one couple was so committed to their virtual baby that their actual 3-month-old died in her crib, malnourished, dirty, and all alone while her parents binged on the game Prius. In New Mexico, a woman was sentenced to 25 years when her 3-year-old daughter starved to death; records show the mother had been on the online multiplayer game World of Warcraft from noon to 3 am the day she found her daughter’s limp body. A 32-year-old man in Taiwan suffered heart failure after gaming at a café for three days straight.

Are these cases merely outliers, where a few individuals with unrelated underlying issues turned to the internet as a place of solace and comfort? After all, compulsion is not the same as addiction, and there does tend to be a moral panic every time a new technology comes to be.

At the same time, could our constant use of the net and needing to stay online all the time risk being something more serious?

Defining an addiction

In 1995, when people were still spelling out “World Wide Web”, an American psychiatrist from New York named Ivan Goldberg published one of the first diagnostic tests for Internet Addiction Disorder. The test listed seven symptoms. You might have a problem if you were online “for longer periods of time than was intended,” or if you made “unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control Internet use.” Needless to say, many of the hundreds who logged on to take the test found themselves to be certified Internet addicts.

Goldberg soon revealed however, that his test was just an elaborate prank. He had simply sought to make a parody of the way disorders were listed in the United States’ gold standard for defining mental illness; Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Speaking to the New Yorker two years later, Goldberg scoffed at the idea of people being hooked to the web, saying that having an Internet addiction support group made “about as much sense as having a support group for coughers.”

Since then, the validity of Internet addiction has been endlessly debated. Although the DSM is still reluctant to list it as a disorder (although it has categorised “Internet gaming disorder” as an issue for “further study”), the fact that the Internet can be addictive seems to have gained more currency across the globe.

In China, internet addiction was declared an official disorder in 2008. That same year, an editorial in the American Journal of Psychiatry called for its inclusion in DSM-V, citing literature out of South Korea showing that roughly 80% of those needing treatment may need psychotropic medications, and roughly 20 percent were hospitalized.

South Korea in particular considers excessive Internet use as one of its most serious public health issues, with increasing reports of fatalities. A South Korean gamer collapsed and died in 2005 after playing the game Starcraft for 50 hours at an Internet café, and a 2007 paper estimated that over 210,000 South Korean children—about 2 per cent of those between 6 and 19—were afflicted with Internet addiction.

Part of the problem in defining whether being on the Internet too much is the same as being addicted is due to the lack of a standard diagnostic criteria. How do you begin to measure excessive internet usage when it has become such a part of our lives?

At the same time, there is now psychical evidence that indicating that the internet may be addictive for some people — by way of brain activity.  Some studies using scanning technology have looked at people’s brains while they were online, and compared them to scans of the activated reward pathways in the brains of people who had a substance abuse disorder: results showed that similar pathways were activated.

Of course, while these debates and research carry on, the people who do compulsively use the web are the ones left to handle the problem.

“I preferred pixels to people”

Adam*, a former online gaming enthusiast, is choosing his words carefully as he shares his experience of spending hours on end in front of his computer. “I don’t want to give the impression that my story is what happens to most people, because as far as I can tell it doesn’t,” he says. “I think people who don’t understand tech, especially the older generations, see the hobby as complete waste of time. Many of my friends are still gamers, and they still normal lives. It just got too much for me.”

The 25-year-old got into the gaming habit some five years ago during his college years. “My housemate was a massive gamer; when I moved in, I was so impressed by the set up he had, from the PC to the screens and speakers. So he got me into it, and it was just a fun way to pass the time when we weren’t in class or doing other things,” he says.

What started as an occasional fun indulgence, turned into an obsession. Adam admits that the tipping point was when his girlfriend broke up with him. “I’m not blaming her or anything, but it was more that I didn’t cope well with the breakup. I didn’t feel like doing much, because I felt too sad to do anything but just go through the motions. When I was gaming though, I felt alive. It was like, every time I got a good “score”, the achievement made me feel good. So I threw myself into the game; planning the perfect raids, coming up with strategies to outwit other gamers, and just getting more wins,” he says.

As Adam put all his efforts into the game, his real life responsibilities became less important. He started skipping classes, and soon his even his meals. He lost almost 7kg from his already slim frame, and started to look and feel haggard. “I think there was one weekend where I didn’t even change my clothes,” he says. “That’s when my housemates started getting worried. I hadn’t left the house in two weeks, and my grades were down the toilet. I think they were worried from early on, but they thought I just needed that space to deal with the breakup. Obviously, I continued to not deal with it well.”

Driven by this worry, Adam’s friends contacted his parents, who in turn tried to get him to see a therapist. “I thought they were all just overreacting, I mean, it was just a game. But as I was talking to my parents when they came over, and this was a talk that lasted hours, I realised that I couldn’t pay any attention to what they were saying because I just wanted to get back to the game. My mum started crying, and all I could say was, can I go now?” he says.

After some coaxing, Adam agreed to see a counsellor to talk about the way he was feeling. “I thought I’ll just go see her once and just get it over with, to shut everyone up. The thing was, once she asked me a few questions, I was crying like a baby. I was really so depressed and anxious inside, but I didn’t to admit that to myself. The best part was, even with all these emotions being let out, my brain was still thinking about when I could go back to playing,” he says.

After some months of counselling, Adam decided to quit gaming once in for all. “I get that it didn’t have to be so dramatic,” he says. “But I can’t trust myself to not get sucked into it again. It’s so easy you know; you figure out what strategy works, apply it, and you get rewarded. In that moment, you feel like you can do anything, even if it’s not real.”

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