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Pop culture has adopted the language of addiction in very casual, offhand ways. We speak of people getting hooked, of going through withdrawal, of needing rehab for all sorts of things, whether it’s Blackberry cellphones, Angry Birds or sugary soft drinks. Addiction has become a shorthand for talking about all sorts of things, from pure laziness to real impulse control.

But for most of these things, we know where the joke ends, and the real addiction begins. A destructive inability to stop using alcohol, tobacco or drugs is no joke. These things ruin lives, kill people and destroy families.

Lately, we’ve seen an extension of the language of addiction into grey areas, like sex, gambling, video games and the Internet. Can people really be addicted to these things in the true, psychological sense of the term? This is a very contentious issue in psychiatric circles, and the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) — the bible of the field that establishes the parameters for diagnosis of mental health disorders — has been negotiating these questions for the 5th edition due to be published in May 2013.

The current draft replaces he category of substance abuse and dependence with “addiction and related disorders,” which offers more wiggle room for including other items. It also creates the new category of “behavoural addictions,” which names gambling as the sole disorder. They did consider adding Internet addiction, but the experts on the judging panel felt there was still insufficient research on the topic. The solution was to put it in the appendix and recommend future study.

So what does that mean for parents and teachers of teens, who may be worried that their kids’ use of the Internet interferes with their lives? The evidence seems to point to some disturbing parallels with addiction. A new study by a group called Intersperience in the UK (reported here in the Daily Mail) found that 53% of Britons felt upset when denied access to the Internet and 40% felt lonely when they couldn’t go online. One respondent said not being able to access the Internet was “like having my hand chopped off.”

A related experiment at the University of Maryland  earlier this year (called The World Unplugged) challenged 1,000 college students in 37 countries to unplug completely from communication technologies, using only a landline and books for communication. Researchers recorded physical and physiologial symptoms comparable to withdrawal from a drug or smoking addiction. They reported feeling anxious, fidgety and isolated, saying that it felt like going “cold turkey” on a hard drug habit or being on a restrictive diet.

Interesting. The Mayo Clinic offers a list of symptoms of drug addiction, which we can adapt for our purposes here:

  • Do you feel the need to regularly use the Internet, daily or several times a day?
  • Do you fail in your attempts to stop using the Internet?
  • Do you make certain you maintain Internet access (wifi, smartphones, etc.)?
  • Do you ever spend money on Internet access even if you can’t afford it?
  • Do you ever do things you wouldn’t normally do to get access, like stealing? (For Internet, I would suggest adding missing significant amounts of sleep or meals.)
  • Do you use time on the Internet to avoid dealing with problems in your life?

They also suggest looking out for warning signs in teens related to drug abuse:

  • Neglecting schoolwork
  • Physical health problems – lack of attention to appearance, fitness, sleep, eating
  • Change in behaviour – becoming rude, insolent, withdrawn, closing themselves in their rooms for long periods
  • I would also add changes in social groups – Internet use can be isolating, especially when they are playing games that replace conventional forms of social interaction with virtual ones.

Now, I’m not a counsellor or psychologist, and these lists are intended to be thought-provoking and not used as checklists for diagnosis, but it seems to me that any activity that starts to interfere with our quality of life is a problem that needs to be dealt with.  The majority of our social interaction should be face to face, not online. There’s a fine line between making the most of technology, and becoming a slave to it.

If you think your teen’s time online is having a negative impact on their life, it’s OK to intervene. And if you have difficulty getting through to them, talk to a teacher, a guidance counsellor, their pediatrician or a social worker. Because our lives in the real world are ultimately the ones that count!