Internet Addiction: Stanford Study Seeks to Define Whether It’s a Problem
STANFORD, Calif. — Is spending too much time online a prevalent and damaging condition, or simply a bad habit among a select few? Stanford University School of Medicine researchers have taken an important step toward resolving the debate over whether compulsive use of the Internet merits a medical diagnosis.
In a telephone-based study, the researchers found that more than one out of eight Americans exhibited at least one possible sign of problematic Internet use. The findings follow results from previous, less rigorous studies that found a significant number of the population could be suffering from some form of Internet addiction.
“We often focus on how wonderful the Internet is -- how simple and efficient it can make things,” said lead author Elias Aboujaoude, M.D. “But we need to consider the fact that it creates real problems for a subset of people.”
Aboujaoude, clinical assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of Stanford’s Impulse Control Disorders Clinic, said that a small but growing number of Internet users are starting to visit their doctors for help with unhealthy attachments to cyberspace. He said these patients’ strong drive to compulsively use the Internet to check e-mail, make blog entries or visit Web sites or chat rooms, is not unlike what sufferers of substance abuse or impulse-control disorders experience: a repetitive, intrusive and irresistible urge to perform an act that may be pleasurable in the moment but that can lead to significant problems on the personal and professional levels.
According to preliminary research, the typical affected individual is a single, college-educated, white male in his 30s, who spends approximately 30 hours a week on non-essential computer use. While some may hear this profile and assume that a person’s Internet “addiction” might actually be an extreme fondness for pornography, Aboujaoude stressed that pornography sites are just one part of the problem.
Although studies show that more than 160 million Americans are regular Internet users, little research has been conducted on problematic Internet use. A 1999 Center for Internet Studies’ survey of 18,000 Internet users, however, did find that 5.7 percent of the sample met suggested criteria for “compulsive” Internet use. And a 2002 study in the journal CyberPsychology & Behavior found that 60 percent of companies surveyed had disciplined, and more than 30 percent had terminated, employees for inappropriate Internet use.
“The issue is starting to be recognized as a legitimate object of clinical attention, as well as an economic problem, given that a great deal of non-essential Internet use takes place at work,” said Aboujaoude. But he added that there is little consensus among clinicians on whether problematic Internet use is a distinct disorder or merely an expression of other psychopathologies, such as depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
In the Stanford study—which Aboujaoude said is the first large-scale, random-sample epidemiological one ever done—the researchers conducted a nationwide household survey and interviewed 2,513 adults. Aboujaoude said the next step is to conduct comprehensive clinical interviews on a large sample of people to better identify clinically relevant markers for problematic Internet use, and to better understand whether this phenomenon constitutes an independent psychological disorder.