People are spending an increasing amount of time online. In some parts of the world, the equivalent of more than half a normal working week is spent on the internet. With technological advances such as smart phones, it becomes ever easier to access the internet, regardless of location and time of day.
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Time spent is only one factor in addiction
Given the amount of time they engage with the internet, people may become concerned that they are addicted. But a word of caution. The amount of time consumed is not, on its own, an indication of possibly addictive behaviour. Some researchers draw a distinction between high levels of internet engagement – perhaps deemed excessive even by the user – and addictive use. It is possible to spend long periods on the internet and yet function healthily. In some instances it may even enhance functioning. Let’s not forget that much of modern-day work necessitates logging on. People now have to try very hard to escape or to avoid any online communication.
Addicted ‘on’ or addicted ‘to’?
It is also much debated whether the internet is itself addictive. Now experts are asking whether people can only be addicted to what is on the internet such as pornography, gaming, shopping, gambling or social networking, rather than to the internet itself. An excessive number of hours spent on the internet may feature in a profile of workaholism, for instance, but the addiction here is to working not to being online. The internet, it is suggested, is simply the means of feeding that workaholism or some other addiction.
Some researchers draw a parallel with alcoholism, arguing that the alcoholic is not addicted to the bottle but only to the mood-altering drug it contains. Others have countered that since sight of the bottle does have an arousing effect it is therefore a component in the addictive relationship. The same, they argue, can be said for the technology that enticingly promises access to to the internet and what it offers. Where the internet and technology is certainly integral to the addiction is in social networking.
Generalised Internet Addiction (GIA)
The term Generalised Internet Addiction was coined to cover the experience of people who were reporting repeatedly going online for its own sake rather than for any clear purpose (or staying long after the initial purpose was fulfilled) and becoming distracted. They reported being lost for hours on end in the online world as a result. Using the internet to pass time and to avoid boredom — a common motivator in some substance use addiction — they became increasingly disconnected from the real world around them, with relationships and other interests suffering as a consequence. The amount of time consumed only ever appeared to grow. They were discomforted if they had to come offline for some reason, suggesting a kind of withdrawal syndrome. While GIA is still relevant, research and treatment tends to focus more on specific addictions enabled by the internet such as Internet Gaming Disorder.