Net "addiction" is a crock, and I can quit whenever I want!'s sexuality editor Cory Silverberg rips into a much-publicized American Journal of Psychiatry editorial from Oregon-based psychiatrist Dr. Jerald Block that calls for a diagnosis of “Internet addiction” to be added to the DSM (the list of mental disorders used by mental health professionals and insurance providers to classify people with diagnosable mental disorders). Silverberg writes...

[Block] argues that that “Internet addiction” is experienced primarily by people engaged in “excessive gaming, sexual preoccupations, and e-mail/text messaging” and that its definition should include:

1) excessive use, often associated with a loss of sense of time or a neglect of basic drives, 2) withdrawal, including feelings of anger, tension, and/or depression when the computer is inaccessible, 3) tolerance, including the need for better computer equipment, more software, or more hours of use, and 4) negative repercussions, including arguments, lying, poor achievement, social isolation, and fatigue.

He cites a few studies to support his theory but seems to believe that we’re already past the point of debating if such a thing as “Internet addiction” exists. Not to put too fine a point on it, we aren’t. Media responses to the editorial were predictable. Newspapers reported on it as if it were a new piece of empirical research, boldly claiming that spending too much time texting or being online was a mental disorder. Bloggers tried their best to mask their understandable anxiety behind defensive jokes about the possibility of being the first to get labeled.

I was particularly surprised by what seemed like a significant omission in the commentary. Of the 103 articles in Nexis and 92 articles linked from Google News that refer to Dr. Block’s editorial not one of them reported the fact that Dr. Block is the co-founder and president of SMARTguard, a company which owns a patent on technology that can be used to restrict computer access. It’s funny that no one mentioned it, since its right there in the editorial footnote.

Oh, busted! Link. Image: "Release Me," by TwistedAngelTx.


  1. Oh, yes, because those of us who suffer from mental illness really need help with being stigmatized by the media.

    And hey, this was the same list that once included homosexuality as a mental disorder.

  2. I have seen Internet addiction in my own Home.
    My wife started World of Warcraft, lost all social contacs outside the game, stopped eating and drinking, lost 25 Kilo.

    I forced her to got to work, her co-workers helped to feed her, after six months she spend outside of working and 4 hours sleep at most 15 Minutes a day away from the game.

    After two years I quit and gave up.
    She is still playing and doing nothing else.

    Internet addiciton is real.

  3. a pre-existing condition may manifest itself by any means – including web-sogging. If the Warcraft weren’t there, perhaps day time television?

  4. When you consider the net essentially combines the full capabilities of television with those of the telephone, it’s hard to deny that it would have an engrossing effect on our culture. For some individuals it probably is addictive (though it is likely the content people become addicted to rather than the media that carries it!)

    However, this “study” presenting it as a medical disorder from the owner of a product that would benefit greatly from such a classification, is of course ridiculous. This is sadly all too often how medical disorders get concocted in our capitalist world.

  5. you know, the chains DO look kinda appealing…..I wonder… though, I use some good quality Campbell Safety Chain instead of that swag-lamp stuff…. anyone, ah,not doing much later?

  6. Dr. Block made an argument in which, according to Silverman, he “cites a few studies to support his theory.”

    Silverman did not address those studies, nor did he actually address Dr. Block’s point. He simply engaged in an ad hominem attack.

    Xeni to her discredit, than echoed that vile ad hominem attack by saying Dr. Block was ‘busted’ because the press didn’t emphasize his founding of a company, which was properly disclosed in the editorial.

    I mean, WTF here?

    As a technophile I would prefer Dr. Block to be wrong, but Silverman did absolutely nothing to discredit Dr. Block’s points. And Xeni did even less than Silverman, except that she managed to bring discredit to herself in the process.

    We do not advance our knowledge of the world by engaging in vile ad hominem attacks against the people with whom we disagree.

    Take on the substance of Dr. Block’s argument, or go home.

    The reality is that at least at a layman’s anecdotal level it seems self evident that net addiction exists.

    I would prefer that to not be the case, but come on…take a look at boingboing’s logs. Look at the ip addresses of your readers and the frequency with which some of them reload the page. Do some math to throw out the timed RSS requests and tell me with a straight face that the people reloading boing boing every few minutes are not engaged in a form of obsessive behavior.

  7. What is up with the errors in the comment system? Bit of tough love on people who comment too much?

    Anyway, if you look in the DSM you’ll find such illnesses as cannabis addiction, ‘gender identity disorder’, and ‘antisocial personality disorder’. The criteria isn’t exactly gold standard; there doesn’t really need to be a positive benefit to differentiating a new illness. Every symptom, or, more and more, simply everything anybody does needs a disease. I had to hide my copy when I was at uni so one of my flatmates didn’t read it and freak himself out.

    I agree with Mr. Silverber as the specific criteria listed by Block are not necessarily indicative of an illness. But his critique could be extended to most mental illnesses, and Blocks article meets the standard trend of pathologising all aspects of human behaviour that fall outside an increasingly shrinking spectrum. The role of the modern psychiatrist in the US is basically to say life: ur doin it wrong.

    People do become addicted to warcraft, but it isn’t to say everyone addicted to warcraft is addicted for the same reason. Every doctor should know how to differentiate a symptom from a disease. For some reason, psychologists cannot.

  8. @ #8 “For some reason, psychologists cannot.”

    This is a little unfair, and also blithely glosses over the actual reasons. To address the unfairness: most generalizations are somewhat inaccurate, including yours that all psychologists are completely clueless on the nature and possible causes of Warcraft addiction.

    Now to the actual reasons. Would you also say that every doctor should know how to differentiate health from abnormality? Try and carry that over to the realm of mental health – I think you’ll find it makes the assertion somewhat problematic. There is a lot that we still don’t understand about the brain, especially regarding the how and why of consciousness and the highly contested distinction between sanity and insanity. Even the foremost experts in the fields that study these issues are far from understanding the phenomenon of consciousness, and it’s not hard to look back in history and see the ways in which the definition of sanity has changed. And this isn’t even to mention the difficulty of linking symptoms to underlying causes – if we don’t know how consciousness arises we are going to get into trouble when we start trying to delineate its “proper” state or the reasons for the many different ways that this propriety might be disturbed.

    Of course the DSM itself is no stranger to controversy and criticism in a number of ways, including the ways that it is used in diagnosis and planning treatment (e.g. the current spook story – not completely without merit – where depression is diagnosed by a doctor who simply goes down the list of symptoms like a checklist and prescribes pills if there are enough checks in the boxes).

    To get back to this internet addiction business in specific, I think if anyone is “busted” by Silverberg’s point about the doctor’s conflict of interest it’s the media and not Dr. Brock. That is exactly the kind of detail that can make a world of difference in how a news story is perceived by a reader, and no doubt the severity of this flap is due in part to the choice not to mention the connection.

    Internet addiction is alarmist terminology but there is a grain of truth hidden in it. The Internet is powerfully attractive to many for many reasons, but time-limiting software and DSM disorder status are, imho, not even close to the most productive ways to discuss the complex ways that the Internet is changing our lifestyles.

  9. I lost a friend to EverQuest.

    Is it a disease? By itself? No. But “addictive personality” may be… Sorta. I kinda think that most psychiatric “diseases” are just marketing ploys for drugs to make people stop doing them.

    It’s a problem, and I would never deny that. But… Um… Cancer is a disease. Being a choad and forgoing hygiene and diet and relationships to level up your Dark Elf is a character flaw.

    We want so much to believe that “normal” is normal. But it’s not. A lot of people aren’t normal. Sometimes that makes them more effective; sometimes that makes them less. We hate to see our friends and family members wreck their lives, but some people just wreck their lives. Doping them up is fine if they want to be doped up, but c’mon. It’s not “medicine,” usually. It’s dope.

    I like to drink. Not a lot, but I try to have a drink every night. Why? Because if I didn’t, I’d work all night and never spend time with my wife. That’s a character flaw. But I trade some liver function for a temporary inability to work, and reap the benefits. I don’t pretend that it’s anything it isn’t though: balancing a character flaw with a bad habit.

  10. I suggest people do things in excess to fill a void in their lives, or gain some reprise from something weighing on them, neither of which is expected to ever go away.

    Despair is a great motivator, you might say. Unfortunately it motivates you to aberrant behavior.

    #10 Kyle: If you change your drink of choice to red wine and keep it to 2 glasses or less a day, you’ve changed your bad habit into a good one. Seriously. At least so this author says:—nine_b_94972.html

  11. I am insulted that Cory Silverberg is attempting to spin the documented destruction of people’s lives into an attack on people he thinks are afraid of technology.

    Denying the existence Internet Addictions is tantamount to denying the existence of gambling addictions, and I doubt he’s willing to take that step to prove his argument.

  12. Dr. Block was interviewed on CBC’s Search Engine March 27 (MP3)

    In his defence Dr Block does not use the term “Internet Addiction” and is only lobbying for the research needed to determine if any definition qualifies for entry into the DSM.

    On the other hand he did not seem to be prepared to answer the most basic questions on this topic.

    Two items from this podcast caught my ear: Internet addiction was first identified by Dr. Ivan Goldberg in 1995. It was widely accepted by the press and he even received calls from self-diagnosed “patients” seeking treatment. The problem was that Dr. Goldberg posted the item as a joke!. A year later he said that having a support group for Internet users makes about as much sense as having one for coughers.

    The second interesting point is that China has embraced internet addiction and routinely locks up young people for “treatment”.

  13. I certainly hope it’s a certifiable mental illness. Because that’s going to be my defense if they ever try to fire me for excessive web browsing here at work. I’d much prefer a few weeks in rehab to being fired.

  14. I know Jerry Bloch pretty well. He is a former engineer who picked up a med degree at Einstein in NYC. He has an upscale private practice here in Portland. True – he is a patent holder on a piece of privacy software, and has been ruminating about the evils of unlimited access to the internet for kids for a few years now.

    His additional training is psychoanalytic, so he goes both ways.

    The “I can fix your kid of the disease I made up” snake oil has been around for probably centuries. In my lifetime I’ve seen satanism, homosexuality, punk rock and heavy metal, marijuana, masturbation, tattooing, and probably others foisted at the proverbial end of the world. It’s fearmongering claptrap.

    The history of treatment for mental illness is filled with intellectuals trying to do their best, often in a vacuum, to fix other people’s problems, It’s second in horrors only to dentistry, perhaps. The trust and respect which are essential qualities for a doctor to speak authoritatively to a psychiatrically ill patient are undermined by this public exploration, with few facts and with a profit-seeking motivation.

    What happened to science?

  15. There’s no doubt there are people who obsess over activities on the internet, and compulsively pursue them to the detriment of their own health and well being. I wouldn’t call this “Internet addiction” any more than I’d call compulsive cat hoarding “Cat addiction”, and give it a separate diagnosis.

    What these people have is an obsessive-compulsive disorder. That’s all. It’s no different from the cat hoarder who lives with thirty semi-feral cats, cat poop on the floor, and cat pee on the walls.

    Some people have very simple rituals (must touch every drawer in a certain order before leaving the room, must flick the light switch exactly eight times, etc).

    Some people have superficially complex rituals (play Everquest/Warcraft, lurk on forums), but anyone who’s played an MMO or hung out on a discussion group can tell you that they’re both basically “same shit, different day”.

    OCD people usually feel a tremendous emotional discomfort (anxiety, rage, whatever) that needs to be released through their rituals. If playing an MMORPG is your ritual, the ability to perform your ritual for 16+ hours a day has to be very comforting.

  16. This is just the “parts of the elephant” thing in a new guise. In the DSM they have separate entries for the trunk, the ears, the tail, the legs, and the tusks. But it’s all one thing.

    In my view, anything that is initially pleasurable and makes you forget your worries is potentially addictive. The cycle:
    * you have problems that trouble you
    * you avoid the pain using X
    * too much X makes your problems worse
    * repeat until you hit bottom

    Some things on the Internet definitely qualify, like Warcraft. I agree that calling it “internet addiction” is faintly ridiculous, like calling alcoholism “bottle addiction”.

    But if you look at the DSM more as a catalog of treatable symptom clusters than a work of philosophy, that makes some sense. If most people didn’t know anything about alcohol, but did easily recognize addictive behavior associated with a lot of empty bottles and a few full ones, then calling it “bottle addiction” would make some sense for two reasons.

    First, friends of the addicted might see a lot of bottles and say, “Hey, I wonder if bottle addiction is involved.” And secondly, people buying things in bottles might stop to think about addiction when they wouldn’t have before.

    And yes, this is all terribly annoying to people who buy milk in bottles. Or even who buy vodka but can handle it. But please don’t mistake your personal lack of problem with bottles for a universal lack of problem.

  17. Mr Silverberg makes his key point here:

    “In this way it’s hard not to read Block’s argument as an attempt to build some kind of border fence around human experience as a means of fending off the dangerous technologies which threaten to destroy our supposedly idyllic lives”

    The point isn’t that problems don’t exist; the point is that calling technology (a ubiquitous part of modern life) the *cause* of the problem is at best inaccurate, and at worst, an act of complete denial. Block describes a symptom and wants to treat it as a disease.

    By focusing on the symptom, we ignore underlying motivations. We point a finger to the glowing screen and say, there, that made my friend into a miserable, lonely person. This is *exactly* like saying alcohol is the cause of alcoholism. Alcohol abuse is a *symptom*, not a cause. Alcoholism is a deadly addiction, but the alcohol itself isn’t a disease, it’s simple a chemical to which our bodies are very sensitive.

    The difference is that alcohol, or heroin, or cigarettes, have a physical dependancy factor, where the other things we’re transplanted the word ‘addiction’ onto do not. Can people have a problem with, say gambling? Sure. Is it addiction? Absolutely not.

    This topic is much the same as the now-popular “sex addiction” notion; again, taking a normal, healthy, almost universal part of the human experience and intentionally distancing it; making too much of it a bad, dangerous thing. Again, the problem had nothing to do with sex itself; it’s a symptom of under-lying personality or psychological issues. Are there people who manifest personality disorders sexually? Absolutely; but sex isn’t the problem, any more than food is the problem with a morbidly obese person.

    We’re too quick to label the symptom as the disease; it’s easy to isolate cause to an external factor, so we like to point that finger outside. But said pointing finger puts the focus in the wrong place and avoids dialog about the real causes and real issues.

  18. What’s everyone talking about? I just noticed a sexy picture…

    You guys don’t… read the articles, do you??

  19. Well Karl, no therapist thinks that way or approaches his patients that way. “Sex addiction” like internet addiction is just the name we give to the behavior of those whose lives have become unmanagable because they masturbate 8 times a day every day or spend 16 hours a day online, every single day.

    No decent therapist treats you by looking up your list of symptoms in the DSM and checking them off. It’s very simple and people here have it backwards. A good therp finds out what parts of your life have become out of balance and then helps you get back to normal.

    Over time the list of things in any single persons life that can be potentially out of balance grows to encompass most of the things that people do. But to then turn around and “See! they are being unscientific.” is to miss the point.

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