There is ongoing debate among psychologists, counsellors, psychiatrists, and physicians about whether “Internet Addiction Disorder” should be considered a diagnosable mental health problem.
Organizations like the American Medical Association have, to date, rejected proposals to classify internet addiction as a mental disorder. This decision was largely based on insufficient research and scientific consensus on the addictive nature of the internet and certain online games.
Because it is not yet an officially recognized disorder, Internet Addition has found itself suffering from a bit of an identity crisis – sometimes being referred to as “excessive”, “problematic”, or “unhealthy” computer use. The use of these terms obviously places the emphasis on the harmful behavior rather than diagnosing the individual him/herself as addicted.
Internet Addiction: A “Catch-All” Term
Further complicating the issue is the fact that the term internet addiction is somewhat of a catch-all label for problems associated with excessive use of computers or technology. For example, the term has been use to describe compulsive online gambling, pornography use, texting, chatting, social networking, web surfing, online shopping, and video gaming.
The Symptom of an Underlying Problem or the Cause?
Numerous theories have been proposed to help explain why certain individuals become addicted to the internet and why certain online activities may be more likely to encourage unhealthy patterns of use. For example, it has been suggested that some people may turn to the internet to avoid feelings of depression, loneliness, shyness, and anxiety. This of course assumes that online addiction is a symptom of an underlying problem rather than a problem in and of itself.
Others argue just the opposite – that internet and computer addiction can bring on mental health problems like depression and anxiety.
Because online addiction is such a new problem and not yet well understood by mental health professionals (at least compared to other issues such as depression and anxiety), individuals seeking help for internet and computer addiction may encounter doctors, therapists, and psychologists who adopt one of the polarized views above.
For example, consider someone struggling with both depression and online addiction – something that is actually quite common.
One therapist may conclude that the depressed mood is clearly the primary issue and that the excessive internet use is “obviously just a symptom of depression and the person’s way of distracting himself from underlying negative feelings.” Another therapist may conclude that internet addiction is clearly the primary issue and that the depression is “obviously just the natural consequence of spending so much time online disconnected from the real world.”
Depending on the presenting problems, both of these approaches may be a disservice to the client.
A More Complex Relationship Between Internet Addiction and Mental Health Problems
As is often the case with issues like this one, the true relationship between internet addiction and other disorders may be more complex than either of these two extremes:\
- Other psychological disorders can (certainly) exist independently of internet addiction
- Other psychological disorders can (very likely) be the underling cause of excessive online use
- Internet addiction can (quite likely) exist independently of other psychological disorders
- Internet addiction can (very possibly) increase the likelihood of developing other psychological disorders
- And finally, both internet addiction and other psychological disorders can (almost certainly) exist simultaneously with one feeding off the other and as a consequence, maintaining or intensifying the symptoms of both