Is Internet Addiction A Mental Illness Or A Social Problem?

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By Kritika Pramod Kulshrestha:

Mia is just an year old; with the latest smart phones and gaming consoles available in the market, her parents devote less time to taking care of her and more time to playing video games online or socializing with friends on Facebook. There are times when Mia’s parents forget that they have a daughter who is in need of their care. They feed her only once a day; on multiple occasions they have even forgotten to feed her. One day when Mia’s mother walked into her daughter’s room, she found the little girl had died. Do you think this is just a story? If yes then maybe you ought to think again. A 3-month old child died in South Korea in 2010 when her parents, obsessed with marathon online gaming sessions, fed her only once a day leaving her to die a slow death. This incident is only one of the many negative consequences of internet addiction.

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When the Bible of mental disorders – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM-IV – decided that internet addiction needs to be designated as a serious mental illness in its May 2013 edition, a controversial debate sparked off across the globe. While researchers state the need for more research into the ways and means of accurately diagnosing internet addiction, the American Psychiatric Association is already comparing the symptoms of Internet Use Disorder (IUD) to substance abuse. Psychologists are also pushing for broadening the diagnosis of IUD to include much more than online gaming addictions.

Web addiction, indeed, affects the white matter of the brain that contains nerve fibres. Researchers have found that excessive internet use does affect the fibres impacting a person’s emotions, self-control, and decision-making abilities. As told to BBC by Dr. Henrietta Bowden-Jones, “white matter abnormalities in the orbito-frontal cortex and other truly significant brain areas are present not only in addictions where substances are involved but also in behavioral ones such as internet addiction”.

World over, kids obsessed with internet games and social media are slowly and steadily distancing themselves from the real world. Without access to their emails even for a few minutes these children experience frustration, anxiety, depression and irritability. According to psychologists, these are deemed as withdrawal symptoms; the same as those observed in substance abuse. Nearly 70 % of the kids being treated at addiction-treatment clinics in Sydney are unable to focus without their smart phones. They struggle to pry themselves away from their IPads and their tablet computers. Are these the children who will be the leaders of tomorrow? For children in South Korea, sleeping with a smart phone instead of a teddy bear is not a new phenomenon. Nearly 160,000 children between the ages of five and nine are addicted to the internet. In the race to be constantly ‘wired in’, children forget to eat lunch, ignore sports and other physical activities, forgo going to the toilet and end up being nervous and distracted when their smart devices are taken away from them. With digital and web addiction affecting nearly 2.55 million people in South Korea, medical practitioners are calling for the categorization of IUD as a mental illness and they are certainly right in doing so. With children as young as the age of 3 being addicted to the internet and technology, the inclusion of IUD in the DSM – V is justified.

Internet use needs to be monitored and the youth must learn to balance technology with other activities. When the darker side of internet addiction is exposed through display of violence, tantrums, and outrage then it becomes a serious problem; it can even be termed as a mental illness. In the last couple of years, we have been exposed to situations where the line between addiction and insanity has been blurred. In 2009, a boy in Ohio shot his mother and gravely injured his father when his parents prevented him from playing an online game because they were afraid that he was becoming obsessed with it. He was only a teenager who probably would have been sent to a juvenile home but if the same happens with an adult then he will be tried for manslaughter. If internet addiction is deemed a mental illness and there are no amendments made to the criminal justice system then it’s quite possible that the defendant will be let off on an insanity plea and may be offered a community sentence rather than a jail term. This will prove to be a serious disadvantage of including internet addiction as a mental disorder, especially in a country like the US where guns are freely available on sale in stores such as Wal-Mart. A teenager who is addicted to the internet and at the same time is charged with murder, which is actually premeditated, can plead to insanity as internet-addiction is a mental illness. This means that he could be given only a community sentence; is that fair to the murder victims?

The inclusion of internet-addiction in the DSM-V could actually be misused. To avoid this, there will need to be reforms and amendments to the existing laws of a country. Only then is it feasible to classify internet addiction as a mental illness.

Many of us use the internet, especially social media, to stay updated on current news and world stories. Often, we check our emails more than 30 times per hour. Are we all mentally ill patients? When someone tries to pry me away from Facebook or LinkedIn, I get upset but not violent. Am I suffering from a mental illness? As I was randomly searching the Internet, I came across an internet addiction test that includes some very familiar questions: How often do you find that you stay on-line longer than you intended? How often do you neglect household chores to spend more time on-line? How often do you snap, yell, or act annoyed if someone bothers you while you are on-line? I answered ‘frequently’ to these questions. Does this mean I am suffering from a mental illness called internet-use disorder? In such cases that I am sure most of us find resonance with, it becomes imperative to accurately define the conditions and symptoms of IUD.

As the debate rages on among researchers, medical practitioners, health officials and the millions of users; we need to understand that only classifying IUD as a mental illness is not enough. We need to amend laws and conduct in-depth research into the symptoms and extent of IUD. Once research shows that IUD can indeed be classified as a mental illness and laws are amended to incorporate IUD and its consequences, we must take steps to include IUD in the DSM – V. Technology and the internet is taking over our lives rapidly and we need to control them before everything is destroyed – humanity, emotions, and societal structure.

Photo Credit: escapedtowisconsin via Compfight cc

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