How to treat Net addiction creatively

Updated: 2014-07-05 06:57

By Patrick Mattimore (China Daily)

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In Daxing, a suburb of Beijing, young patients live in guarded cells behind walls topped with barbed wire. They take medication, participate in therapy and adhere to a physical and dietary regimen to treat their supposed disorder: Internet addiction. The problem and its alleged cures have become so great that in 2009, the Chinese government banned physical punishment to wean adolescents from the Internet and, before that, had outlawed the use of shock treatment to treat the disorder.

China was among the first countries to label "Internet addiction" a clinical disorder. The most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V, published in 2013) is the American Psychiatric Association's classification and diagnostic tool. In the United States, the DSM serves as a universal authority for psychiatric diagnosis. Internet addiction disorder (IAD) is not a recognized mental disorder in the DSM-V; gambling disorder is the only non-substance related addictive disorder.

However, that is not to suggest that the problem has been overlooked in the West. A Kindle book search for the term "Internet addiction" produces 117 titles such as "Internet Addiction: The Ultimate Guide for How to Overcome an Internet Addiction for Life" and "The Internet Addiction Cure - The Ultimate Guide To Help You Walk Away From The Computer". In addition to ultimate guides there are books such as I Was an Internet Addict, a digital diet four-step plan to break your addiction, books to help you recognize signs of Internet addiction, promising books to lead you away from addiction in 21 days, and books guaranteed to get you "Web sober".

Chinese researchers have gotten involved too. In a study supported by the National Natural Sciences Foundation of China, they found that IAD is associated with structural abnormalities in gray matter in the brains of young people. The researchers' results suggest, "long-term Internet addiction would result in brain structural alterations, which probably contribute to chronic dysfunction in subjects with IAD".

Let's take a step back here. First, the research in China is preliminary. There were no safeguards to check whether there were pre-existing differences in the subjects identified as Internet addicts and those who were not. So, it's impossible to know if the time they spent on the Internet was causing brain changes or the pre-existing differences in the individuals led them to spend more time on the Internet.

Second, because it was not a controlled experiment, it is also possible that other variables such as differences in diet led to the observed brain differences.

Third, the diagnosis of Internet addiction was based upon reports of the subjects themselves as to the hours they spent on the Internet, somewhat suspect sources for a diagnosis.

Finally, because the researchers were looking only at the negative effects brought about by "Internet addiction", they were not alert to whether brain differences they saw in the individuals they studied might actually be beneficial, that is, formation of new synapses related to creative ways of thinking about problems. We know, for example, that experience can influence the synaptic organization of the brain and perhaps some of the differences the researchers saw were not abnormalities but efficiencies.

In the 1980s, the book When Society Becomes an Addict attracted a lot of attention. Its author, Anne Wilson Schaef, identified as an expert in overcoming multiple addictions in a 2010 interview, suggested that "the system in which we live is an addictive system", referring to the West. Schaef wrote that we "must admit that the society we care about has a disease and can recover from that disease". We had all become addicts.

While Schaef's writing was radical, it was a rather unfortunate outgrowth of a trend that had begun in the 1970s to pathologize behavior. People who ate too much chocolate were "chocoholics" and people who shopped until they dropped were "shopoholics". Fortunately, that tendency to label excessive behaviors as addictions, disorders and diseases reversed itself in the 1990s.

One might hope the same would happen in China. People would be better served, not by treating problematic Internet use by young people as a clinical disorder, but by examining ways in which young people might spend their time more constructively.

Encouraging research on this subject is the work of Timothy Wilson, who has written a book, Redirect - The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, recently. Wilson argues, and studies support the proposition, that the best way to get young people to change maladaptive behavior is to get them involved in volunteering to help others. Channeling youth into constructive behavior is a better course of action than treating them as sick individuals.

The author is a fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism, the USA.

(China Daily 07/05/2014 page5)

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