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Only Connect: Is Internet Addiction a Real Problem?

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If this isn't the first and only thing you're going to read on the internet today, then you have a serious mental disorder. From May next year, 'internet-use disorder' is set to be included in the DSM-IV, swelling the ranks of the certified insane with bored office workers, Crackberry addicts and those pursuing a serious relationship with Siri. This newly "discovered" malady is supposedly a symptom of the unparalleled reach of the internet's sinister, silicone tentacles into our daily lives; the transfixing, bewitching nature of our MacBooks' enticing 2-D face.

As with any development that concerns the evils of technology, or promises to prove once and for all that our insipid modern metropolitan lives are a far cry from the glittering, wholesome, simple past, the danger of internet addiction has been seized upon by the right-wing press. Emailing has been reported to have a nefarious cardiovascular effect, and the lives of twelve year olds are said to be being 'damaged' by exposure to dangerously fun games.

While amusing, it seems there is a dark undercurrent lurking behind these doom-laden prophecies. The word 'addiction' is being bandied about in a way that detracts from actual, recognisable physical dependencies. It is being diluted through the unnecessary and inaccurate inclusion of not-so-out-extraordinary behaviour. Thomas Szasz has observed that 'addiction' and 'abuse' are terms that society applies to minority activities that fall outside its own locus of approval. Thus 'drug abuse' is a stigmatising term given to pharmacological behaviour that does not involve the certifying apparatus of the state, while the routine taking of other addictive but prescribed drugs is not viewed as a 'disorder'. By extension, anything that, for whatever reason, society deems unfit becomes a 'mental illness'.

The inclusion of 'internet-use disorder' in the DSM-IV seems to involve a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the behaviour in question. What if, rather than new technology having some kind of inherent malignity, it was more that society had failed to adequately adapt to its presence? The hysteria around little kids' 'addiction' to (non-violent) videogames and some people's heavy internet use hints at a prejudice against technologically advanced forms of diversion. We wouldn't say that someone who voraciously consumes books was 'addicted' to reading, nor would we say that a particularly loquacious person had a chatting disorder. For some reason, though, skimming paperbacks and idle gossip are considered 'normal' activities, while maintaining a prolific Twitter presence and trying to get 1000 'notes' on Tumblr are not.

The argument that children are becoming addicted to videogames is equally flawed. Emil Hodzic says that the primary sign of a child's unhealthy obsession with videogames is 'any expression of distress, frustration, irritability when they don't get to play'. But isn't this the case with any child and any game or toy that has ever existed? Wouldn't this have been the same reaction of a 1960s child who, I don't know, had their Action Man taken away? A wartime child deprived of the tile-collecting delights of Scrabble?

The stigmatising of frequent internet use speaks of an ignorance over the validity of the medium as a form of work and recreation. The decision of the DSM's authors to unnecessarily pathologise a largely benign activity is unfortunate, as it detracts from the seriousness of actual physiological addiction, by turning it into just another strand of the increasingly interchangeable 'disorder' spectrum. It points to a generational gap between the Manual's creators and the young subjects of their analysis. For people of my generation and younger, the internet is a fact of life, and not an aberration that merits a convoluted diagnosis and 'treatment'.