Scroll Cycle: The Rise of Internet Addiction
By Riyana Straetker, Illustration by Christina Mastrull
It all started with an unpaid internship digital at a women's fashion magazine in New York City. Working from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. two days a week as a junior in high school, Joelle Hyman, a senior art history major, got her first taste of the power of the Internet. For seven hours, she would sit behind the glossy-white plastic veneer of her MacBook, scrolling through Racked, Refinery29, Fashionista, Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, anything that posted content similar to what her internship required her to publish. Even on her off days, Hyman would watch over online content, sifting through post after post, hour after hour. At first, staying informed meant doing her job well, but it soon became her way of keeping herself going. She felt as if she had discovered a part of her she hadn’t seen before. It’s a part of her that can only be fed by a constant stream of information—and the best way to satisfy that need is the Internet. Even now, five years later, it’s an internal competition to keep up with every celebrity sighting, track every designer dress, and know the Internet inside out and backwards to find every detail about that celebrity in that designer dress.
Addiction: defined as “the compulsion to engage in an activity or ingest a substance that can be pleasurable but interferes with ordinary life and activities.” And while many people, like Hyman, find themselves uncontrollably drawn to the Internet and its many vices, the American Psychological Association (APA) has yet to recognize Internet addiction as a legitimate disease. In May 2013, the APA released the newest version of the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), known as the Psychologists Bible, and interestingly, no mention of Internet addiction as a viable and treatable disorder graced the pages. In a press release the APA said they considered Internet addiction for inclusion, but ultimately, the work group members decided there was insufficient research data to actually include the addiction.
This surprising exclusion was followed by the grand opening of the first Internet addiction treatment facility in Bradford, P.A. Launched in September 2013 as part of the Bradford Regional Medical Center, the Internet Addiction Program lives under the Behavioral Health Department, and rather than focusing on a “digital detox”—where participants disconnect from technology for a set period of time—aims to rehabilitate patients from the addictive powers of the Internet.
To the facility’s credit, in 2010, the Hadassah Medical Organization found that 1.5 to 8.2 percent of the population in the U.S. and Europe suffers from Internet addiction symptoms, and those numbers are thought to be growing. Even more shocking, a 2012 study conducted by the University of Bonn in Germany found a gene mutation, which may determine a predilection to Internet addiction—and it affects more women than men. All this highlights the increasing heat of a contentious debate in the psychology community, with many psychologists and industry professionals split on the legitimacy of Internet addiction.
And it doesn’t help when potential patients like Hyman can’t identify if they have a problem or not. “No, I don’t think it’s a problem,” Hyman says. “I get offline when I need to.” She uses apps like SelfControl, which shuts down access to selected websites for set lengths of time, to try and keep her Internet and social media use in check.
Taking this self-moderation one step further, the Internet addiction treatment facility hopes to treat all those who need help controlling their Internet habits. Founded by Kimberly Young, a professor at St. Bonaventure University, the program houses four patients at a time who begin and end their treatment on the same day. The 10-day program starts with a 72-hour digital detox, followed by a full psychological evaluation. Young expects to see withdrawal symptoms similar to those seen in other addicts. All this rings up to a hefty total of $14,000—which patients pay out of pocket, since no insurance company, not even Obamacare, cover Internet addiction without the recognition gained from a place in the DSM-5.
Part of what holds psychologists back from including Internet addiction is lack of research. Addiction diagnosis follows a strict path, and more conclusive studies must be conducted in order for the group to consider adding Internet addiction to the psychology bible’s ranks. “It’s having trouble being declared an addiction because it’s harder for things like Internet addiction to have the physiological symptoms,” says Gina Chen, Ph.D. Chen works as an assistant professor in mass communications at the University of Southern Mississippi and specializes in research on social media engagement and communication through social media channels.
No study has successfully eliminated all doubts that linger on the exact source and location of Internet addiction. Extensive—and conclusive—studies find the source of addiction linked on many levels, from molecular biology to sociology. “If you want to get a reasonably good picture both of what’s going on and how it’s being maintained, you need to look at all those levels,” says Stephen Maisto, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Syracuse University and editor of the psychological journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. Addiction develops in and affects each person in a different way, and the importance each of these levels play in that person’s addiction diagnosis varies. But at the same time, each of these different levels, and their different affects, determine an addiction, which only makes a successful diagnosis more complicated. This multi-dimensional, layered approach to diagnosis of addiction also explains why no clear “cure” for addiction exists, Internet or otherwise.
And when it comes to Internet addiction, these levels become increasingly more complicated. “People use the word ‘addiction’ in a very loose way,” Chen says. “The public uses it very differently than the clinical definition. An addiction is more than just, ‘I like to do it all the time and I don't like to stop.’ It’s really when you’re supposed to have withdrawal and cravings, and all the physiological symptoms of addiction.” The layman’s use of the word “addiction” devalues actual addictions—like saying, “I’m so addicted to chocolate,” when in reality you could stop eating chocolate whenever you wanted. But this gets confusing when the multiple gateways to Internet addiction are considered—chat rooms, social media, alternate reality games. The endless ways to pass time online mean endless potential for addiction symptoms to develop. It also means the actual, diagnosable addictions are often linked to the way a person spends time online. For example, while a person may be addicted to watching porn online, they aren’t addicted to the Internet—they’re addicted to the sexual stimulation of the porn. The Internet simply acts as a vehicle for various forms of addiction, which makes it hard to determine where the problem stems from.
Hyman’s Internet usage starts innocently enough—perusing the news headlines and social media—but soon can change tune. “I get sucked into a k-hole on YouTube which likely started with searching for interviews with an artist I’m currently into and somehow ended with watching fan-made montages of One Direction,” she says.
This convoluted journey into the depths of the Internet also characterizes the research conducted on the addiction. The University of Bonn in Bonn, Germany, conducted a study in 2012 to find where in the human genome chain the gene for Internet addiction lives. Participants filled out an Internet addiction test, then swabbed the inside of their cheek for DNA. Those who scored 39 or higher on the test were marked as having problematic Internet use. After comparing the results to a control group, researchers found the gene, CHRNA4, more likely to reside in women. This string of letters and number is the primary indicator of predisposition to Internet addiction. Christian Montag, Ph.D., the lead researcher on the study, says the results, while highly speculative, reflect addictive tendencies toward general use of the Internet and social networks. Montag knows of the debate raging around Internet addiction, and believes the DNA found can help define the parameters of the addiction. “Our findings support the notion that Internet addiction resembles a [classifiable] addiction,” he says.
And while the science is still being explored, Chen believes mobile technology furthers the case for Internet addiction. Smartphones have made their way into everyday life, constantly becoming smaller and more accessible and making Internet more readily available. The overt availability, while not directly proven, affects the trend of Internet addiction. Scientists believe juggling multiple sources of technology affects our ability to focus—which certainly seems to make a stronger case for Internet addiction. Technology has the ability to overwhelm all other senses, creating distractions that can strongly effect how the brain processes information. This kind of alteration helps give researchers the push they need to define the parameters of Internet addiction—if it so strongly affects everyday life, there is a much stronger case to have it approved in the DSM-5.
For Hyman, the Internet extends beyond a source of information or a passing distraction. “I source so much of who I am and what I know from the Internet,” she says. It all starts with Twitter. Get up, scroll through her Twitter feed. Read British headlines. Check New York Magazine, The New York Times arts section, The Daily Mail, NME. The bright backgrounds reflect in the glass of her thick, black-rimmed glasses as she spends the first part of her morning absorbing all the news possible. Then she loses herself in Tumblr as the morning slips away. In the afternoon she’s back, checking the same sites five times a day. It’s a way to keep herself going, to feed on a constant stream of information.