Internet Addiction, Comic Books and Chinese Cultural Assimilation

How would you know if you have Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD)?  Are you avoiding going out in order to use the Internet more?  Do you find yourself dreaming or fantasizing about the Internet?  Have you noticed your fingers are making involuntary typing movements? … Or does your skeptical alarm go off hearing this characterization of Internet addiction?

It may sound like a joke, but in 1995, Dr Ivan Goldberg, a New York City psychiatrist, used these symptoms to specify IAD on his website.  Goldberg, a reputable psychiatrist who has worked for the National Institute of Mental Health and has been on staff at Columbia University, has hosted the website since 1986, when it was a bulletin board for fellow mental health workers.  In little time, the website was flooded with requests for help from self-diagnosed addicts, and IAD soon became a popular topic in universities, clinics and the media.  IAD had become accepted as a new mental illness.

But the best part of this story is that Dr Goldberg was just kidding.

He “decided to play a joke on the members [of his website] by posting a parody of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM] [t]o demonstrate the handbook’s complexity and rigidity … .”  Goldberg admits that people can become overly involved with the Internet but balks at classifying the problem as a true addiction.

So, with the popular uptake of IAD as a mental illness despite its dubious origin, does the addiction actually exist?  In the mental health community, there appear to be two camps.

Critics of IAD observe that the term lumps many problems under a single label, such as depression, anxiety, poor impulse control, pathological gambling, sexual obsession and obsessive shopping … or even just problem avoidance.   As well, some naysayers point out that people cannot be addicted to an “environment,” otherwise it will follow that TV, cellphone and bingo addictions will also need to be classified.

Nevertheless, there are true believers.  Dr Kimberly Young, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford and Director of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery, is a case in point.  She seems to equate IAD with addiction to drugs, alcohol and cigarettes.  But a closer look at her views reveals that they are strikingly similar to the fears of the Conservative Right – the Internet is dangerous; it is a portal for unregulated pornography; it exposes children to pornography; it is a haven for pedophiles; it leads to the victimization of children; it facilitates teen sexual experimentation.  That is not to say that all IAD supporters are so ideologically bound.  More on moral panic later.

Last week’s CBC Radio show Search Engine revealed another believer.  In the segment “Internet Addiction: real or virtual?” host Jesse Brown interviewed (mp3 file

“>mp3) Oregon-based psychiatrist Dr Jerald Block, who has advocated in the American Journal of Psychiatry to have IAD included in the upcoming fifth version of the DSM (DSM-V).  Block refers to data from South Korea and China to characterize the composition and scope of IAD, but he admits that North American data are scarce and that people who suffer from IAD typically also suffer from other mental disorders.

Brown takes Block to task.  In a firm but respectful interrogation, Brown questions the validity of IAD:

You know, I’m no psychiatrist, but addiction has a pretty specific meaning, doesn’t it?  I mean you can be compulsive about anything.  You can be excessive about anything – eating pizza or masturbation or watching The Wire or wearing plaid.  But it’s not an addiction unless there’s a physical dependency.  Is that right?  And you have to have withdrawal when you quit for it to be an addiction?

Brown also questions the rush to get IAD into the DSM-V:

But there’s a danger if something gets in there that shouldn’t.  If something’s in there, you can be hospitalized for it, you can be drugged.  I know that homosexuality was considered a mental illness in the DSM for many years, and that ruined a lot of people’s lives.  Are you afraid of putting something in there maybe a little too casually?

Much of Block’s argument seems to be based on anecdotal evidence and gut feel, backed up by the data from Asia, and when Brown needles him about doing more studies in North America before formalizing IAD as a recognized illness, Block responds:

Oh well absolutely more studies need to be done, and that’s part of the reason you need the diagnosis.  The next step is to design and produce widespread studies, and in order to do that, you need to get funding, and in order to have funding, usually you need to have a DSM diagnosis that you’re trying to support or trying to disprove or prove.

To which, Brown quips:

So until we classify Internet Addiction as a mental disorder, we can’t actually learn whether or not it is a mental disorder.

Brown does a great analysis, in the intro to the segment, of some of the underlying motivations to medicalizing IAD.  He likens it to the moral panic over comic books in the 1950s, which persisted in the 1960s as the taboo of horror comics, like Tales from the Crypt, as I was growing up.  A similar phenomenon was the controversy over role-playing games in the 1980s.

Brown also shows how the pathologizing of IAD can be misused for ideological purposes:

And then there’s China, where Internet addiction is formally recognized as an all-out epidemic, directly related to rampant juvenile delinquency.  An influential Chinese judge recently stated that 85 percent of juvenile crime in China is Internet related.

Here’s a clip from a recent wire-story report on a Chinese military hospital where teenage web heads are treated:

“The young men who are treated here are addicts.  Most are addicted to playing Internet games and some to on-line chat rooms – the occupations that have cost them their studies, their health, even their sanity.  One is being pumped with what the nurse calls a calming fluid.  Not these boys, nor their parents, can know what it contains.  Like all the concoctions used in this clinic, its contents are a military secret.”

Similar facilities have sprung up in Vietnam and in South Korea, who also link Internet addiction with juvenile delinquency.

Which calls into question the validity of using the Chinese and South Korean data to support the justification of IAD as a formal mental disorder.

So continue visiting this website.  I feel comfortable in saying that we are not enabling your obsessive drive towards an eventual mental collapse.


05. April 2008 by barry
Categories: Skepticism, Topics | Comments Off on Internet Addiction, Comic Books and Chinese Cultural Assimilation