Internet addiction: When the pull of cyberspace is impossible to resist

Internet addiction, running the gamut from online gaming and social networking to internet shopping and pornography, is believed to be sweeping the globe, with rehab facilities already present in several countries.

Key trends

  • “Screenager” epidemic;
  • Gamer “widows”;
  • Addicts on the move.

Commercial opportunities

  • Self-help books/software;
  • Counselling and treatment centres;
  • Smartphones and the endless possibility of apps including self-help ones.

Background

There’s dispute among medical experts about whether it’s a real addiction but pathology or pastime, it’s a phenomenon that’s generated a growing industry: everything from online support groups to cognitive behaviour therapy and content-control software.

China, which has the world’s largest internet population (375.3 million in 2009, according to Euromonitor International data), opened its first internet and gaming addiction clinic in 2005 and now has over 200 organizations offering treatment for internet disorders to thousands of sufferers, according to a 2009 Reuters report.

In Europe the first residential unit set up to treat video game addicts appeared in Amsterdam in 2006, and last year the psychiatric department of a Rome hospital launched a new centre for internet addicts, offering treatment mirrored on that seen in Japan and elsewhere. About 10% of the users of Facebook may develop a dependency, according to the hospital.

However while clinics offering telephone and chat room counselling have been available for many years, the first residential treatment centre in the USA only opened last August. Based near Seattle, it offers a 45-day programme intended to wean people off “pathological computer use”. Its founder claims that unlike China, South Korea and Taiwan, America has been slow to recognise the condition.

One of the first residents, aged 19, became addicted at university to the video game World of Warcraft. “At first it was a couple of hours a day. By midway through the first semester, I was playing 16 or 17 hours a day,” he told Associated Press.

The scope of the problem is immense. A 2007 article in the journal Advances in Psychiatric Treatment suggested a “substantial minority” of the circa 50 million web users in Britain (some experts reckon 5-10%) may be addicts, according to a recent Times newspaper report.

And in 2006, a report from Stanford Medical School estimated that almost 14% of the millions of Americans with internet access found it difficult to stop using the web for more than a few days (Euromonitor International data shows that there were 227.2 million internet users in the USA in 2009).

In China, a 2005 survey concluded that 13.2 % of internet users fell into that category, and most media reports put the number of addicts at 20 million, according to a China Daily article last August.

Internet subscribers in selected regions: 2004-2009
Million

Source: Euromonitor International from trade sources/national statistics.

“Screenager” epidemic

A recent survey of British secondary school children, reported by Euronet.eu, found that more than a quarter are spending at least six hours a day on the net. Teenagers are seen as more at risk of addiction because they’ve grown up in the computer age and for them life without the internet is almost unthinkable.

One London hospital has just launched the country’s first dedicated programme offering therapy for young people addicted to the internet and gaming. The treatment is similar to that for drug or alcohol addiction, with addicts required to go “cold turkey” and take part in individual and group therapy sessions in order to overcome their obsession.

The consultant psychiatrist leading the new addiction treatment told the London Evening Standard it aimed to “transform screenagers back into teenagers.” It follows on from the first European school for teenage computer addicts, opened by German authorities in 2003, where children are taught how to make friends, exercise, and play games.

The issue of online addiction is also causing concern to Chinese families. According to a poll by the China Youth Daily, 95% of respondents believe the internet has an adverse impact on children. As many as 72% of those polled support internet content ratings, while 11% oppose the idea. 33% of China’s onliners are under 20 years old, according to the official China Internet Network Information Centre.

Thousands of children and young adults are undergoing treatment for internet addiction at hundreds of rehabilitation schools, camps and clinics nationwide.

The South Korean government estimates up to 30% of those under 18, or about 2.4 million people, are at risk. To combat the problem it offers treatment at roughly 200 counselling centres and hospitals, and has trained more than 1,000 internet addiction counsellors, according to a documentary by the US’s Public Broadcasting Service earlier this year.

While last August, MTV began filming a documentary about young American computer gaming addicts. “With games outpacing all other forms of entertainment in terms of viewership, it felt like the right time,” the executive producer told the Times newspaper.

Gamer “widows”

Often it’s not the youngsters who have the problem. On Gamerwidow.com, the partners of addicts can discuss their experiences and vent their frustration with their physically present but emotionally absent “other half.” It’s become a hot topic with marriage counsellors, one of whom told the Washington Post in February, “The complaints are coming from men and women.

You hear this a lot: ‘I can’t reach you. I can’t find you. You can be sitting two inches from me, but you are not there. Where are you?’ Spouses are checking out at dinner, on vacation. It’s really become a 24-7 thing.”

Addicts on the move

The stereotype of the computer-addicted recluse in the basement is history, according to the same Washington Post report. It notes a recent Pew Research Centre study, which found “a significant proportion of people who visit public and semi-public spaces are online while in those spaces.” Smartphones mean the addict can get his next fix on the go, and this increasingly means downloading the latest application.

Americans have downloaded more than two billion applications for iPhones, and the Yankee Group, a Boston research firm, expects seven billion app downloads via all mobile devices by 2013. Two devotees, quoted by the Washington Post, said they live for when they get an alert from their iPhones about new information or a new version of an app.

Gravity Tank, a Chicago consulting firm, recently studied app users. The smallest group, “recent converts,” just dabble in apps. “Life optimizers” use apps as an extension of their brain, organizing every minute of their day, while the largest group, the “constantly entertained,” covet data and fear boredom. Their age is about 30. 68% are men.

Nearly half are married. Average number of apps on their phones: 21. 73% said they use apps “all the time.” Top reason: “It seems like a fun and entertaining escape.”

Apple’s recently unveiled iPad, giving users a bigger and faster way to make data portable, looks set to fuel the addiction for information and entertainment anytime, anywhere, as do the attempts by mobile phone developers to significantly increase download speeds.

For those who can’t bear to tear themselves away from the screen, there’s even a 99-cent iPhone app, “Type n Walk,” that uses the device’s camera to display on screen what’s happening in the physical world, giving users the confidence to walk and type at the same time.

Outlook

Globally, more and more people see the internet as an essential part of their daily life. They work, do their shopping, book holidays, socialise and spend leisure time online. It seems almost inevitable, therefore, that internet addiction is set to increase.

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