Can the Internet be Addictive?

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An article describing something called "Internet addiction disorder" has been spreading around the Web, and Vaughan Bell, a psychiatrist at King's College London, is fuming over what he calls the "infuriating and self-contradictory" piece. Bell just published a paper in the Journal of Mental Health detailing why this supposedly new brand of psychological addiction is, in fact, impossible. He says that people can become addicted to substances or activities, but stresses that the Internet is neither. Instead, he says it's a medium of communication, and that one can be no more addicted to it than to language or radio waves.

Bell acknowledges that there are people who have significant psychological problems and do spend too much time online, but says there's little evidence that all the surfing causes those problems. The Japanese, he says, are approaching the issue the right way. They've identified the problem driving the individuals known as hikkikomori, who spend all their time using the Internet and playing video games, as social withdrawal. The gameplay and surfing are just symptoms of that larger issue.

This isn't the first time scientists have fought over this question of excessive Internet use, and it may be that the courts help decide the issue. A former IBM worker recently sued the company for wrongful termination after he'd been caught spending too much time in chat rooms. His excuse? An acute case of Internet addiction. Which may or may not be real.—Gregory Mone