Internet addiction is the compulsive need to spend excessive amounts of time engaged in online activities, while neglecting other important areas of life such as family, friends work or study.
I know, it sounds like a ridiculous proposition doesn’t it? There is no way that internet addiction could compare to the public health emergency that is the Covid-19 pandemic. However, you may be surprised to know that in many ways internet addiction well and truly surpasses the trauma of the pandemic. Here are some statistics that will put the impact of the two situations in perspective.
There is no doubt that Covid-19 has had an acute impact on the way we live our lives and has wreaked havoc on people’s physical and mental health, as well as on the economic wellbeing of every nation. But just look at these figures. While in the USA 8.9 million people have suffered from the disease, almost double that number of people (17.4 million) are currently suffering from internet addiction. In Australia the comparison is even greater, with more than 50 times as many people suffering from internet addiction then have had Covid-19. In Japan, the comparison is larger again, with 84 times as many people addicted to the internet than have been infected with Covid-19. Medical experts are only expecting the problem to worsen, as the availability, acceptance and speed of internet infrastructure increases. The internet is being known in medical circles as “digital heroin.”
The definition of a pandemic is:
“(of a disease) prevalent over a whole country or the world”.
That internet addiction is prevalent across the world is evident. Research conducted in 2014 tested participants across 31 nations and seven world regions. The findings showed internet addiction was spread across the globe, with an average addiction rate of 6%. The highest rate of addiction was in the Middle East (10.9%) and the lowest in Northern and Western Europe at 2.6%. Many countries around the world are now collecting and publishing their own statistics showing how widespread the issue is. From Bangladesh to Brazil, Germany to Greenland, Australia to Austria, no country is untouched by internet addiction. Doctors in China, South Korea and Taiwan have already declared it a public health emergency, and fears are rife for the impact that isolation during Covid-19 may have on the already dire situation.
So, given the global nature of the issue, the much larger numbers of people affected, and the predicted escalation of the problem, why wouldn’t we treat internet addiction with even more energy and resources than we are doing Covid-19?
I have considered some of the possible counterarguments to this proposition, and here is what I have come up with so far.
Internet addiction is not a disease
Technically this is correct. As yet, Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) has not been included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM 5). Therefore, at least in the United States, it is not yet an official disorder or a disease which can then be supported by the health insurance system. There is a DSM though for Substance Use Disorder which covers dependence upon drugs such as alcohol; caffeine; cannabis; hallucinogens opioids; sedatives, hypnotics, or and stimulants. So addiction to these things is recognised as a disease and covered by health insurance.
Here’s the thing though. Changes to the DSM-5 well and truly lag behind the medical opinion. Gambling is a case in point. It was only finally encoded into the DSM-5 in 2013. While there are some proposals in play to include internet addiction in the DSM-5, it is still in process, and no clear timeframe for resolution advertised.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has already included the more specific branch of gaming disorder in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), which is a great step forward. This means there is a global focus now on identification, reporting and treatment of this specific type of internet addiction.
As described in my article What Is Addiction, initially use of the internet occurs by choice, as a way to deal with an undesirable situation. However, as treating doctors attest to, the patients they treat for internet addiction show all of the same structural and functional brain changes as those with substance use disorders. In this way, over time, their ability to make logical decisions, and to choose to desist from internet engagement is reduced. As stated by Dr Teoh, a treating physician:
“We recognise people with internet addiction have all the features of people with chemical addiction. Clinically we can see that they are addicted to it.”
They also exhibit the same kind and intensity of cognitive, emotional and behavioural issues of ‘addicts.’ So while it may not be formally recognised yet, in practice every one of the people shown in the numbers above are facing the same trauma as others we classify as having the disease of addiction.
Covid-19 is infectious and can result in death
Again, this is true. Covid-19 is incredibly infectious, and with a mortality rate of around 10%, the more people that contract the virus, the more people are likely to die. However, as the numbers show, the measures being taken currently are keeping the infections to a relatively low proportion of the population, so much lower than those suffering from internet addiction.
Moreover, in recent years there has been a three-fold increase in Australia in the rate of addiction, and in the United States, the amount of internet use goes up by 25% every three months. While the timeframe for escalation is certainly slower, the number of and rate of increase of internet addiction well and truly passes those infected with Covid-19.
There is no way I am minimising the pain of losing a loved one. I feel so deeply for all of those people who knew their loved one was suffering and could not be there to help them through it. What I am saying is that the suffering that addiction brings needs to be considered as well. Death is traumatic, but so is the waste of human potential, destruction of families and the devastation of a life that continues to deliver pain and suffering.
Covid-19 has broader implications
Most of the rhetoric I hear about the impact of Covid-19 centres around the economy. This is important as the shutdown of businesses means job loss and therefore financial distress and mental anguish for many. It will take years, if not decades for the economies of the world to recover and for many individuals and families to make it back to financial independence.
Again though, one should not ignore the impact of internet addiction on the economy. In a study done by Vault.com, it was estimated that surfing the internet costs around $54 billion annually in lost productivity. So right now, the costs to the economy of internet addiction are real.
And while the Covid-19 virus is more likely to harm the elderly, internet addiction younger people to a greater extent. Those of college and high school age are most at risk. It results in:
· Adverse effects on brain structure and function
· Delayed cognitive development
· Reduced ability to focus, speak and reason
· Reduced social skills
· Family breakdown
· Reduced community vitality and support
· Academic disruptions
· Reduced job performance and job loss
· Financial stress.
There are large and very broad impacts of internet addiction for our society. Because the young are more vulnerable, it means that the problems being faced now, if not dealt with promptly, can also affect communities for generations to come. We will have a whole generation of children who are passing on harmful behaviours.
Covid-19 is completely harmful but the internet has benefits
I agree. The internet has opened up a whole world of information and opportunity. It has so many blessings. But the reality is the greater exposure to these benefits, the increased risk of harm from addiction. The more time you spend on it, the more likely you will become dependent on it. As outlined in the above list, during the addiction there is significant harm for both the individual, their families, carers and communities. Withdrawing from the addiction and maintaining the balance in the future also requires a great deal of support, care and attention. Unlike a typical Covid-19 case, recovery is not expected within 14 days. The harm can last months or years, and the recovery and healing across all aspects of the person’s life could take much longer. Just like anything else provided to us, the benefits must be balanced with the risks. It is the role of government and public policy to do what it can to minimise these risks for its people.
The good news is though, just like Covid-19 both recovery and prevention of internet addiction is possible. There are already so many people out there from both the medical and NFP communities taking great action to minimise the risk and support those experiencing the trauma of internet addiction. But I can’t help wondering what it would look like if federal and state governments treated internet addiction with the same conviction and attention they are investing in Covid-19.
Read more in The 3rd Edge Publication on Medium here
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Cheng C, Li AY. Internet addiction prevalence and quality of (real) life: a meta-analysis of 31 nations across seven world regions. Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 2014;17(12):755–760. DOI:10.1089/cyber.2014.0317