In this article I discuss further the classification of problematic Internet use, and share the attempts made to distill the problem into 'sub-types'. I believe it is important to present the forms that Internet addiction can take before I share my own research regarding the causes (aetiology and predisposing factors) of problematic internet use.
SUB-TYPES OF IA
Studies exploring the prevalence of specific types of Internet addiction within adults began to emerge at the turn of the millennium. Young (1999) and Young et al. (2000) categorise Internet addiction into five subtypes:
Using this framework is help understand the various manifestations of Internet addiction. I now introduce each sub-type in turn, with studies that account their distinction and prevalence. In reality however, the distinction is not always too clear, and overlap often occurs.
Computer game addiction
As a result of the rapid advances in technology, computer gaming is now largely on-line, because of the interactive capabilities of the Internet. For those that do engage in on-line gaming, the average time spent per week, irrespective of whether they are deemed addicted or not, is approximately 25 hours (Griffiths, Davies, & Chappell, 2004; Smahel, Blinka, & Ledabyl, 2008). Other researchers have revealed that a significant proportion of players (11%) will spend at least 40 hours gaming, equivalent to a full-time job (Ng & Wiemer-Hastings, 2005). Of those seeking psychological support for problematic Internet use, 21% are on-line gamers, according to research conducted by Mitchell, Becker-Blease, and Finkelhor (2005). Marginally more adolescents than adults present for therapy in such cases (55%), but of the adults that do present, a significant majority are men (74%). It is worth noting however, that a major limitation of the questionnaires measuring gaming addiction within the above studies is that they more often target Massively Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs), and whilst very popular, this does not reflect the diversity of games that users are addicted to. A more accurate and versatile assessment tool is required to determine actual prevalence within and across this sub-type of IA.
One survey revealed that 9% of users who were deemed to be presenting with Internet addiction struggled with compulsions relating to cybersex or viewing sexually explicit material (Cooper, 2002). This may not seem so surprising when figures from a study by Family Safe Media (2010) suggest that in 2006 Internet pornography accounted for 23% of the total market share for pornography in the United States (almost $3 billion). Delmonico and Griffin (2011) suggest that our cultural assumptions are further challenged by these statistics, as the same study reveals that a third of visitors to pornographic websites are female, and 60% of those who type the term adult sex into search engines are female (Family Safe Media, 2010).
Cooper, Delmonico, and Burg (2000) estimate that one fifth of people who use Internet for sexual purposes experience devastating consequences that can be long lasting. Griffiths (2012) notes that the healthy majority of the population are able to use the Internet to complement their off-line sexuality, which actually enhances and enriches their lives. For instance, individuals are able to network within non-normative gendered and sexually marginalised communities, where they believe they can freely and safely express their sexuality without fear of shame, ridicule, or even prosecution. However, for the 20% minority, to which Cooper, Delmonico, Berg (2000) refer, they may find themselves unable to physically withdraw from the Internet, for several hours at a time (in some cases, unbroken days at a time), in search of sexual intimacy, romance, compulsive collecting and viewing of pornographic images and videos. Often, individuals will find themselves transgressing their own ethical boundaries and the legal boundaries of the country in which they reside and are accountable.
In a review of the empirical research concerning Internet sex addiction (Griffiths, 2012) the author evaluates a shortlist of 7 quantitative studies and 5 qualitative studies. Griffiths concludes that future research is still required in order to secure the pathological status of Internet sex addiction as a sub-form of Internet addiction. Whilst he notes that the phenomenon shares characteristics with real life sex addiction, he guards that the online phenomena is not to be equated with it and proposes a clear diagnostic framework to clinically assess Internet sex addiction as the initial step forward. An obvious shortcoming of the Griffith (2012) study is the exclusion criteria of studies from Eastern countries. Future research should accommodate empirical research at the global level, and attempt to capture cultural similarities and differences in prevalence.
Information overload (or “Web-surfing addiction”, Kuss & Griffiths, 2011)
It is not clear from the studies of Young (1999) and Young et al. (2000) how this sub-type came be defined and therefore how it is empirically supported. It refers to individuals who become addicted to using search engines and suchlike to collect information. Whilst, to some degree, some or all of the subtypes can merge and boundaries become unclear, web-surfing addiction is perhaps the least straight forward, and can be inextricably linked with other subtypes (e.g. cybersexual addiction and the collection of pornographic images). However, theories have been proposed that help understand and research this more generalised Internet addiction. For instance, Davis (2001) proposed the concepts of specific and generalised Pathological Internet Use (PIU), where ‘generalised’ refers to maladaptive Internet use that is not linked to any specific content.
Earlier writers have highlighted how computer-mediated interpersonal communication provides an opportunity for a higher degree of anonymity, the luxury of time to compose and edit on-line messages, and to exercise more control of self-presentation and impression management (Walther, 1996; Caplan & High, 2011). Perhaps not surprisingly, a correlation has been evidenced between Problematic Internet Use (PIU) and interpersonal problems, including social anxiety and loneliness (Caplan, 2007; and Morahan-Martin & Schumacher, 2000). A recent and extensive literature review (Kuss & Griffiths, 2011) revealed the negative correlates of Social Networking Site [SNS] usage to be: problematic face-to-face [FtF] interpersonal relationships; withdrawal of participation in ‘real world’ social communities; as well as a decline in academic performance and achievement. For instance, Scherer (1997) revealed that college students deemed Internet dependent were 26% more likely than their non-dependent counterparts to go online to meet new people, in search of unique social experiences.
More recently, in a longitudinal study, van den Eijnden et al. (2008) studied adolescents struggling with one or more sub-types of Internet addition, as listed above. At a six-month follow up period, the same sample was reassessed, revealing that use of on-line social networking sites integrated with real-time communication functions, was the strongest predictor of future Internet use compulsivity. By contrast, they discovered no effect for email communications, which are time delayed. However, given that (re)assessment of compulsivity was only administered at a 6 month stage follow-up, the researchers claims should be held tentatively until future studies accommodate an extended longitudinal design to determine the strength of this predictive ‘function’.
An interesting observation was made by Kim and Davis (2009) who studied the relationship between PIU and online social networking with friends, family, and on-line acquaintances. Participants were more likely to experience higher PIU when using the Internet to make new friends as oppose to using it as a vehicle to complement existing FtF relationships.
It has been empirically demonstrated that the Internet serves as a powerful mediator, facilitator and accelerator of compulsive behaviours. Specific types include: trading in stocks and shares (speculating and investing); gambling; and shopping. A focus on the more explicit forms of gambling will illustrate this point. An early study by Griffiths (2001) set a benchmark for prevalence. Only 1% of Internet users were Internet gamblers, none of which were regular users for such purposes (i.e. more than once per week). It is important to note that the sample was based upon a United Kingdom population, and so the claims could not be extended internationally. However, cross-cultural comparisons can be made, after evaluating studies conducted in other countries, such as the United States. For instance, in a survey conducted by Ladd and Petry (2002), results indicated that 3.6% of their self-selected sample gambled on a weekly basis, using the Internet. Subsequent to psychological screening, the authors concluded that gambling was significantly more problematic for those who gambled using the Internet as oppose to that that gambled off-line.
Sampling Internet gamblers alone (n = 1,920) Wood and Williams (2007) revealed that 43% met criteria to be classified as moderate to severe problematic gamblers. In 2008, Griffiths and Barnes provided evidence that problem gamblers (n=26) were significantly more likely to have gambled using the Internet (77%) than not (23%). A more recent study (Matthews, Farnworth, & Griffiths, 2009) also sampling Internet gamblers alone, found that 19% could be defined as probable pathological gamblers using the South Oaks Gambling Screen (SOGS). Given the inconsistency in assessment measures employed in the above studies, future research should attempt to standardise the assessment tools used to assess Internet gambling addiction (such as the SOGS), which would help determine, with a higher degree of accuracy, prevalence.
In the first study of its kind, Griffiths et al., (2009) analysed data from the British Gambling Prevalence Survey (n=9,003) providing evidence of significant differences between the socio-demographic profiles of Internet gamblers and off-line gamblers. The archetypal Internet gambler was more likely to be young, male, educated, single, and in a professional / managerial occupational position. Gambling was significantly more problematic for on-line gamblers (5%) than non-Internet gamblers (0.5%). The strength of this study is clearly the size of the sample. However, the design involved an on-line survey, to be completed by the participants themselves, which raises obvious issues regarding self-selection, and does not account potential differences between the others who decided not to participate. Another weakness of the study is that it targets on-line poker players, and so truths claims can only be offered regarding this population of on-line gamblers.
References - Contact Dr Matthew Shorrock to request a full list of references contained within this post.
About the author
Dr Matthew Shorrock is Clinical Director at the International Centre for Internet Addiction, offering face-to-face and online assessment and research services. Treatment programmes and clinics are also available at dedicated centres in Austria (Vienna) and the United Kingdom Manchester. Supervision, consultation and workshops are also available to health care professionals and organisations working with problematic internet use, supporting them in providing the best possible care - from prevention to 'cure'.
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