It started as a joke
In 1995, the year Netscape -- the Web's first popular browser -- went public, New York psychiatrist Dr. Ivan Goldberg introduced the psychology world to a new malady: Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD). He set forth diagnostic criteria based on substance use and impulse-control disorders.
But it was all a joke.
He put forward the "disorder" and a fictitious support group to lampoon the American Psychiatric Association's newly released version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Goldberg wanted to spark introspection in the psychological community about the usefulness of creating new disorders.
To his surprise, several colleagues confessed their addiction and e-mailed him for help. In not much time, his joke launched a rash of media reports and studies on the subject that continues to this day.
What is it?
Internet addiction isn't recognized as a disorder by the American Psychiatric Association's DSM. Some psychologists advocate including it in the next revision of the manual, but they've struggled to agree on exactly what it means. One analysis of research done on Internet addiction from 1996 to 2006 found that "previous studies have utilized inconsistent criteria to define Internet addicts" and "applied recruiting methods that may cause serious sampling bias."
Moreover, studies have found that patients diagnosed with Internet addiction frequently have additional psychological disorders, such as anxiety and depression. This has muddied the waters as to whether the symptoms of Internet addiction constitute a unique disorder, or simply manifest from other problems.
In other words, the research so far leaves more questions than answers.
So, is it really an addiction?
The American Psychiatric Association will release a new version of the DSM in 2012. In the lead-up to its publication the debate over Internet addiction's validity as a disorder has intensified. Critics argue those wanting to label it a disorder mistake a compulsive behavioral problem for an addiction. They say the label could lead down a slippery slope: any "excessive" indulgence in an activity -- reading, working, playing sports, etc -- could be called an addiction. And critics claim that IAD confuses an intangible medium in which compulsive behaviors occur, for the behaviors themselves; while problem-gamblers may bet frequently online, this doesn't make them addicted to the Internet.
Whatever it may be called, an official designation in the revised 2012 DSM would, among other things, affect whether people seeking treatment for Internet addiction can receive reimbursement from health care insurers.
- Our webcam interview with Dr. Jerald Block, an Internet addiction specialist
- Dr. Ivan Goldberg's original diagnostic criteria for Internet addiction
- Dr. Goldberg's joke
- Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)
- Dr. Kimberly Young's free online test - while studies have raised concerns about the accuracy of Young's diagnostic test, it is widely used and referenced in the psychology community.
- A critical look at Internet addiction