December 17, 2008

Is Internet Addiction Really An Addiction?

Depends on your definition. Wovon man...

Keith Bakker, the founder and head of The Smith & Jones Centre, Europe's first and only clinic to treat computer gaming addicts, has changed his mind: 90% of the hardcore, multi-hour gaming addicts are not actually addicted.

These kids sure look like addicts:

"These kids come in showing some kind of symptoms that are similar to other addictions and chemical dependencies," he says. 

"But the more we work with these kids the less I believe we can call this addiction. What many of these kids need is their parents and their school teachers - this is a social problem."

The clinic he runs is a rehab, for all addictions-- alcohol, drugs, etc-- it just happens to be the only one offering treatment for internet addiction using the same model.  And he's abandoning it.

"This gaming problem is a result of the society we live in today...Eighty per cent of the young people we see have been bullied at school and feel isolated. Many of the symptoms they have can be solved by going back to good old fashioned communication."
The article goes on to cite the causes you'd probably guess at:

  • Not feeling accepted in real life
  • rejection, alienation, anger
  • anonymity allows you to be anyone you want
  • games offer you the identity affirmation one so desperately craves

Mr Bakker believes that if there was more commitment from parents and other care givers to listen to what their children are saying then these issues of isolation and frustration could be dealt with at source and bring many young people out of the virtual world and back into real life.
Adults do not take the time to really listen to "kids" as autonomous entities, we treat them either as extensions of ourselves or as pets.

"If I continue to call gaming an addiction it takes away the element of choice these people have," he says. "It's a complete shift in my thinking and also a shift in the thinking of my clinic and the way it treats these people."
The main novelty here is that it's an addiction specialist who is making this concession, admitting that most kids, regardless of how long they are playing, aren't addicted.

Hold on-- none of those kids are Chinese, are they?


The debate about what is and isn't an addiction is a red herring.  It creates a false dichotomy.  Whether it is a compulsion or bad behavior doesn't change the fact that the person needs to stop, and often can't for whatever reason, and needs help stopping.

Focusing on the false dichotomy as the reason for treatment does have several consequences.    We don't know addiction is a disease, we think it's a disease.  It's entirely possible twenty years from now we will discover it actually isn't.  Then what?  Kick the junkies to the curb?

Secondly, it makes control the central issue in its "treatment.  "Loss of control is both the hallmark of addiction and the source of its societal stigma," said one of the country's leading addictions psychiatrist.  If/since that is true, then it implies control must come from the outside.

You should probably stop reading right here.


First the Germans were going to take over the world in the1940s; then the Russians in the 60s.  Then the Japanese in the 80s.  Then the Chinese in the 2000s.  Perhaps every generation's parents need some foreign nation to scare their kids into better SAT scores.  But history is clear that when a bubbles bursts, it gets replaced, not reinflated.  Put away your Berlitz tapes. 

A quick survey of national bubbles also serves to support my contention that nations in decline turn quickly to one of two things: completely whacked out pornography, or fascism, or both.

China-- where they have recently classifed internet addiction as a full blown psychiatric disorder, has invested considerable money and resources into treating it.

USAToday describes a Chinese clinic:

"All the children here have left school because they are playing games or in chat rooms everyday," says the clinic's director, Dr. Tao Ran. "They are suffering from depression, nervousness, fear and unwillingness to interact with others, panic and agitation. They also have sleep disorders, the shakes and numbness in their hands."

You can sense their frustration: whatever the cause, genetic or social, it's a big problem that is taking possibly two million kids out of circulation.

But classifying it as a psychiatric disorder-- that the element of choice is absent or decreased-- means that the state can "offer" you treatment if it thinks you need it.

We do that in America, too-- involuntary commitment laws, etc, for those to ill to take care of themselves.  The difference is that "internet addiction" is sufficiently general that it can be defined by whatever group is in charge of setting definitions-- in this case, the government-- at any time they want, ad hoc. 

Perhaps you're an iconoclastic blogger who thinks China blows?   A couple months at Daxing Boot Camp-- I mean Treatment Center-- will straighten you out.


Suddenly, that false dichotomy isn't so false anymore; suddenly, it matters very much if it's an addiction, or not.

Which brings me to my very unpopular position on this issue, toxic to any self-respecting Kantian: we shouldn't try to find out if addictions are diseases or not.

Society is often not ready for the answers to some "scientific" questions.  As a society, we shouldn't be too quick to want addiction to be a disease, or criminality to be biologically based, or intelligence to be genetic, because we have no ability to deal with the consequences of those truths.  We're barely muddling through now, and that only because not knowing allows us to slide back and forth along the spectrum, as situations require.

So many arguments are really the result of inconsistently applied definitions.  The reason we have endless debates is that we have no agreement on what an addiction is.  Is the primary characteristic a loss of control; escalating use; the presence of tolerance and withdrawal; etc?  Not even all drug addictions have all those things.  And without rigorous definitions, you can't have a scientific inquiry into the question.  You may as well try to find out if sexism is a disease, keeping in mind that our understanding of sexism has been very different over the course of, say, 2000 years-- not to mention our conception of disease.  How does science  determine the biological correlates of something whose definition is applied inconsistently, influenced by prevailing cultural standards?  You don't.  Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, daruber muss man schweigen.

Furthermore, these words have connotations which are more important than their actual definitions, should they even exist.  You can never fully erase these connotations.  When a scientician says that gaming is an addiction like cocaine addiction, a gamer hears, for example, that the scientician means it is "bad."    So no matter how much data, MRIs, southern blots, genetic markers you show him, for him the issue isn't biology, but morality.  The result of this is that rather than the scientician spending time making a case for why gaming can be an addiction, the real thrust of the argument is convincing the kid that addiction has a different meaning.  In other words, the discourse isn't about science, or what is true; it's about semantics.  In other words, a complete waste of time.  Both interpretations are equally right (or wrong) because the word addiction means what you want it to mean.

Doctors love to identify biology in such things because it allows them to assit in making social policy.  Doctors have no place there, they not only have nothing to contribute, their contributions should be assumed to be folly.

Arthur C. Clarke said either we are alone in the universe, or we are not.  Both are equally  terrifying.   Everyone agrees that one of those two has to be right; but as long as we don't have to answer it, we can go on with our lives.