Conor Manning investigates the growing phenomenon of internet addiction

All students in UCD will be intimately familiar with the time dilating powers of the internet, hospital but recent research indicates that the internet may be addictive in the same way as drugs.

According to research funded by the National Science Foundation in China, overuse of the internet correlates with brain structures associated with cravings and compulsive decision making. The researchers studying Internet Addiction (IA) say that this is similar to what can be seen in addicts of alcohol, marijuana and cocaine. As frequent users of the internet, are students prone to become addicted?

The Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery is one place which is taking the problem of IA very seriously. They name criteria for determining if somebody is addicted to the internet. If you use the internet as a way of avoiding problems or anxiety, if you think about your next online session while not on the internet, and if you have repeatedly made attempts to use the internet less, but failed, then you could be addicted.

IA is a very new phenomenon, which has grown rapidly due to the exponential growth rate of technology and the widespread availability of broadband in the developed world. For this reason, research into its possible effects has lagged behind. Some psychologists still use a test devised in 1998 to determine if a given case is addiction. Most internet access worldwide in 1998 was via dial-up, and the name Wi-Fi didn’t come into existence until 1999, so it is easy to see how little we really know about internet addiction.

There is no accepted common definition of IA at present. In fact, psychologists are debating whether IA is a disease in its own right or merely a symptom of other issues. This is made more difficult by the fact that those diagnosed with IA often have another addictive disorder or depression.

This confusion notwithstanding, while experts don’t agree on precisely what the nature of IA is, they all agree that it is a problem, and a huge effort is being put in to its diagnosis and into different types of treatments for the condition.

As of yet, there are no specialised IA recovery centres in Ireland, however there are centres across the world which satisfy this demand. The National Health Service in the United Kingdom set up one such centre in 2011. The first such centre in the world is known as The Centre for Internet Addiction and was established as early as 1995 by pioneering researcher Dr. Kimberley Young.

Following Wikipedia’s blackout last year over the Stop Online Piracy Act, Dr. Young highlighted how dependent even moderate internet users are upon the World Wide Web. Speaking about what would happen if the internet crashed, he said: “There would be a sense of loss: What would I do with my time?”

Dr. Young, who formulated the first test for IA, identifies several typical cases of IA: those addicted to online pornography, those addicted to online gambling, and those who surf the internet compulsively.

One of the biggest areas that has recently appeared is online gaming. Teenagers in particular are at risk of becoming hooked on Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGS), which create an immersive fantasy world that they can inhabit. Keith Bakker, founder of an addiction consultancy in Amsterdam, says, “video games may look innocent, but they can be as addictive as gambling or drugs and just as hard to kick.”

Treatment for internet addiction is a difficult area. It is not simply a case of gradually reducing hours spent online, assisted by family and friends. IA often presents itself along with a lack of self-esteem, and this has to be reconstructed in order for treatment to be successful. In the case of online gaming or an addiction to chatting online, it is important to try to repair relationships outside of the internet whilst cutting down on internet use.