You don’t have to look far to find examples of unnecessary Internet use. From smart phone-wielding urbanites texting on every street corner to college students glued to Facebook in the library, connectivity is everywhere, and it can be hard to tell the difference between indulgence and addiction.
According to a Nielsen study, worldwide time spent on social media sites increased 82 percent—from three hours to five and a half hours—between 2008 and 2009. Add that to the Pew Internet Research Center’s recent statistics on teens and cell phone use, reporting that 87 percent of teens text, with an average of 50 messages sent per day. For parents worried about their children’s use of the web and individuals who think they might have a problem, how do you know if you’re a dataholic? The answer isn’t so cut-and-dry.
Besides being normalized by the media (not to mention increasing Wi-Fi connectivity and ever-faster data speeds), excessive Internet use can be difficult to define because not even the experts agree on the validity of the term. Though the last few years have seen an increase in treatment programs for Internet addiction, the diagnosis was denied admission to the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the so-called psychologists’ bible.
One critic of Internet addiction’s classification as a disorder is Dr. Ronald Pies, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine. “It is premature to declare Internet addiction a discrete disorder, although further research may show that it has elements in common with other conditions affecting the motivation and rewards circuits of the brain,” he said. Stuart Gitlow, the executive director of the Annenberg Physician Training Program in Addictive Disease, agrees: “Humans love devoting hundreds of hours to specific activities,” he said, naming reading and memorizing baseball stats as two examples.
Whether Internet addiction is comparable to other dependencies such as alcoholism is one question, but there certainly are people whose dependence on data is so serious that they seek out assistance.
The last few years have seen more outlets open for self-identified Internet addicts to seek treatment. One such place is the reStart Internet Addiction Recovery Program, located in Fall City, Washington. Founded by Cosette Rae and Hilarie Cash in July 2009, the inpatient program has helped nearly 20 clients who stay for a minimum of 45 days. During their stay, clients do not use the Internet, focusing instead on developing life skills such as cooking, cleaning, and time management.
Who is reStart helping? Cash says that the majority of the program’s patients are between the ages of 18 and 28, with men accounting for about two thirds of the participants. The vast majority of reStart’s clients come to the program with an addiction to online gaming.
“What we typically see is that Internet use has had a profound impact on their ability to function in school or work. Most of our participants are dropouts from college,” Cash says. “They often don’t have good social skills, and they’re often not in very good physical health because they’re too sedentary.” One of reStart’s missions is to gain a sense of how a dataholic’s relationship to technology has impacted his life in a negative way and if there is an inability to control and manage that addiction.