The latest draft of the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a set of standards published by the American Psychiatric Association, posits a new category of mental disorder, called “Behavioral Addictions,” and it suggests, for starters, just one such disorder: gambling. The physiological rationale for the new category is that such behavior has the same clinical pattern as substance addictions, that is, an activity originally undertaken for pleasure becomes compulsive. The addicted person ceases to derive much pleasure from the activity but continues to pursue the pattern despite diminishing gains and increasing cost. Addicts lose control over their behavior. The activity begins to control them. Neurobiologically, experts claim, addictive behaviors follow the same path in the brain, generating the euphoria that dopamine creates, and leading addicts to repeat their behavior in search of new pleasures.
So how do experts define the criteria for “Internet” addiction? To begin with, they’ve identified six criteria that must be present:
Preoccupation—Thinking constantly about previous online activity or anticipating the next one.
Tolerance—Needing longer periods online in order to feel satisfied.
Lack of control—Finding it impossible to cut back or stop.
Withdrawal—Stopping induces restlessness, irritability, other changes in mood.
Unintended overuse—Repeatedly staying online longer than intended.
Also, the user must also experience one of three criteria that indicate the online activity is negatively affecting his life. These include (1) losing or jeopardizing the loss of something important, such as a job, a big opportunity, or personal relationship, (2) concealing and/or lying about time spent online, and (3) using the activity to escape real-life difficulties.
Psychologist Sherry Turkle doesn’t like the idea of labeling computer overuse as an addiction because, she claims, it calls for one solution: stopping. And she believes we must learn how to live with our technologies, that we can’t go back. “The idea of addiction, with its one solution that we know we won’t take, makes us feel hopeless. We have to find a way to live with seductive technology and make it work to our purpose,” Turkle writes in her new book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.
It is certainly true that we can’t go back—the Internet and cell phones aren’t going away and there will no doubt be even more seductive technologies to come. Still it is hard to ignore the neurological science that tells us some people are rewiring their brains in ways that make them crave more media use, causing them to lose control of their time and how they spent it. Yet it may also be true that only those types of personalities are at risk who are predisposed to develop some sort of compulsive, addictive behavior in any event. But I do have one more nagging thought that just won’t go away. It’s what one of Sherry Turkle’s young research subjects observed about the pull and the power of our modern technology: This sixteen-year-old girl perhaps identifies the real problem with this postmodern life of ours: “Technology is bad because people are not as strong as its pull.”