Internet Addiction: Impulse Control Disorder?

Is the amount of time you spend online impacting negatively on your well-being? According to the first nationwide study attempting to quantify ‘internet addiction’ in the general population, between 6 percent and 14 percent of computer users say they spend too much time with online activities, to the detriment of work, relationships, and even food and sleep.

The first-ever attempt to quantify ‘internet addiction’ in the general population has just been published in the October issue of CNS Spectrums: The International Journal of Neuropsychiatric Medicine. The survey, led by Stanford psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude from the University’s Impulse Control Disorders Clinic, found that around one in ten computer users reported themselves to be spending too much time online, to the detriment of work, relationships, and even food and sleep.

In a story carried by the APA’s PsycPort, Aboujaoude said:

We worry when people use virtual interactions to substitute for real social interactions — and seeing their real relationships suffer, as a result.

Sneaking out of bed, once your partner is asleep, to go online. Missing deadline after deadline at work, while visiting chat rooms. And when you cut back, feeling irritable, anxious or restless. Those are red flags.

Over the last two to three years, more people have come in with this specific complaint, saying, ‘I spend way too much time online, but I can’t help it’. They characterize it in terms that sound like almost a substance abuse problem.

In light of this compulsive feature, Aboujaoude advocates the label ‘impulse control disorder’, saying that more research is needed to identify whether internet overuse is a distinct condition or whether it is instead an expression of another psychopathology, such as depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Although generally sceptical of the idea of ‘internet addiction’ as a genuine clinical disorder, we’ve covered internet addiction here before, and the section of psychological tests and quizzes even includes an internet addiction test or two.

The Stanford research seems to me like an important step in the direction of grounding discussions about internet addiction in real empirical evidence, as distinct from the variously well-informed or poorly-informed prognostications about it which so often pass for discussion. In particular, identifying specifically compulsive aspects of internet-related behaviours seems to me to be crucial to any attempt to paint internet addiction as a genuine addiction, rather than simply being another behaviour which may sometimes impact on other aspects of life and which sometimes may be maladaptive. After all, playing with one’s children may also impact on work, other relationships, food, and sleep, but as far as I know nobody has proposed a ‘parenting addiction’. And it cannot all be down to self reports of what makes for ‘too much time’, unless parents who admit to spending ‘too much time’ playing with their children, to the detriment of work, etc., really are ‘parenting addicts’.

Along related lines, I think it would be interesting to see more empirical exploration using tools other than self reports focused specifically on the impact of net use. In other words, I think it would be interesting to get some idea of the extent to which internet use really does impinge on work, relationships, food, sleep, etc. — as distinct from the extent to which individual respondents report that it does.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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