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Doubt cast over validity of internet addiction

Friday, October 17th 2014 by Ellen Branagh

Internet addiction will have to be researched much more thoroughly before any firm findings can be made, a psychologist has said.

Speaking to Cable.co.uk, chartered psychologist Alan Redman said new technology always brings fear of how it will affect the human brain but it will be a long time before any conclusive answers are found, if ever.

His comments come after a survey suggested that many 18 to 25-year-olds in UK are suffering from internet addiction disorder (IAD).

According to the study, conducted by digital marketing agency Digital Clarity, 16% of 1,300 people surveyed admitted to five signs of addiction that are considered key symptoms of the disorder.

They include losing track of time while on the net; becoming irritable when interrupted during web use; feeling guilty about how much time you spend online; isolation from family and friends due to excessive online activity; and a sense of euphoria when online and panic when offline.

But Mr Redman, from business psychologist consultancy Criterion Partnership, said addiction was difficult to diagnose and often related to other problems.

He said this was highlighted by the fact that Internet Addiction Disorder is not listed in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (IAD), commonly used by psychiatrists.

Mr Redman said the cases that hit the headlines often looked at individuals or small groups – citing the recent story about a man allegedly being treated for Google Glass addiction.

He told us, “That’s one case and psychologists certainly wouldn’t look to one example as being a means of saying, ‘yes there’s a new syndrome’.

“There’s been some kind of neuroscience looking at this issue, but again it involves small groups.

“If there are individuals who are addicted to the internet, I think that’s more based on the underlying mechanisms that lead to other forms of addiction.

“If you are going to design an experiment to get to the bottom of this, first of all you would have to be satisfied that there was a separate, distinct disorder, and then run a lot of tests.

“But addiction itself, there’s no clear answer. It’s wrapped up in so much other stuff about the individual, it will always be researched, and there may never be an answer.

He added: “Personally I think it’s possible to get addicted to the internet in the same way it’s possible to get addicted to anything.

“It’s all related to the pleasure centres of our brain –something you find rewarding releases a Dopamine hit and we get pleasure.

“The internet is rewarding, social media especially centres on these little hits.

“I guess the difference, or maybe something that is unique about the internet, is the frequency of the hits. They are small but frequent, maybe that’s a bit different from gambling or smoking.”

New technology regularly brings concern and anxiety that it may become addictive, he said, but it is unlikely that human brains would “rewire themselves” in a relatively short period of time.

“When mobile phones first appeared in a mass way, there was talk of mobile phone addiction.

“You used to hear of symptoms like the phantom vibrate, you would hear about text addiction, it’s another iteration of that really.

“New technology does tend to attract this fear, this anxiety of, ‘it’s changing us, it’s creating a psychological disorder’.

“I think in the end our brains do change, they do rewire themselves to adapt to new technology, to adapt to any change.

“But we have been around for millions of years. I personally find it hard to believe that we could change in such a short space of time.”

For its survey, Digital Clarity polled more than 1,300 people between 18 and 25 from a cross section of the UK, with 16% admitting to five of the signs.

Almost all of those (91%) who showed signs of IAD admitted to being online for more than 15 hours per day – 10% of those surveyed spent more than 15 hours per day online, 46% between five and 15 hours per day online with 44% spending less than five hours per day online.

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