What is internet addiction?
Internet addiction manifests when excessive internet use starts to affect someone’s life, causing impairment or distress. There are various types of internet addiction, from social networking and gambling to pornography and gaming.
Internet gaming addiction, also known as Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD), is now recognised as a mental health condition that can have major consequences for an individual’s wellbeing.
Dr Vasileios Stavropoulos, a senior lecturer in clinical psychology and coordinator of the Gaming Research Group at Federation University Australia, says six criteria must be met in order for excessive internet gaming to be classed as an addiction.
That criteria includes a frequent preoccupation or obsession with internet gaming, progressively higher doses of gaming to achieve the same outcome, using gaming to modify mood or feelings, conflict with others due to dysfunction in the gamer’s other roles, failing in attempts to curb or stop gaming, and withdrawal symptoms when not gaming online.
“Anyone who presents with all six of these characteristics gets a diagnosis but if some do not present with all six and present with some of them, we tend to think that they are at high risk of Internet Gaming Disorder,” he says.
While the incidence of online addiction has grown in the past decade, it’s still an emerging area of research. Dr Stavropoulos says a 2010 Tasmanian study of more than 1300 students indicated 4.6% met the six criteria for internet addiction but little is known about the national prevalence of the condition.
Who is most at risk?
Dr Stavropoulos, who has studied the impact of internet addiction and excessive online gaming on adolescents, says studies show male adolescents, particularly those aged 16 to 18, are generally at higher risk than female adolescents. But new research has shown that female students who are struggling at school and who experience hostility in the classroom are vulnerable to addiction, turning to the internet as a refuge and a place to find acceptance and connection that they are not finding at school.
“What makes people addicted to the use of online games has been found to be mainly the online socialisation aspect, so they get in contact with other gamers. It’s what we call internet paradox because this medium, which has been designed to advance communication between individuals, ends up making them more isolated in real life,” he says.
“Gamers compensate the lack of relationships in real life with online relationships, and what makes online relationships more attractive to individuals has to do with three things – anonymity, escapism and convenience.”
What makes internet gaming addictive?
Research shows Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) can increase the symptoms of internet addiction.
Dr Stavropoulos says the games create ‘online flow’, where gamers are absorbed by the game action, coupled with the psychological state of telepresence, where gamers’ perceptions fail to accurately acknowledge the role of technology in their experience.
MMORPGs also enable gamers to create and develop a character, known as an avatar, that reflects who they would like to be in the real world.
“This virtual identity often reflects their idealised self – you can choose who you are and you can choose the way other people see you. You can be who you want to be and that’s the power of the game,” he says.
“It’s what we call augmented reality. It’s a part of reality but it’s also augmented with fantastic elements that make it very absorbing and attractive – it’s like living your fantasy in many ways.”
Dr Stavropoulos says MMORPGs feature constant development and rewards, enabling gamers to develop skills to achieve higher levels, which provides an immediate sense of satisfaction.
Despite the games often being played in isolation in the real world, they drive communication online, enabling gamers to socialise in gaming groups, called guilds or clans.
How is Internet Gaming Disorder treated?
The evidence-based psychological talk therapy Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is used to treat internet addiction.
Dr Stavropoulos says group therapy is crucial in helping gamers to develop relationships and improve how they relate to others while individual therapy assists gamers to address gaps between their virtual identity and their real self.
Dr Stavropoulos also urges caution against using medication, such as mood modification-related medication, to treat internet addiction.
“The gamers’ main driver is to change the way they feel, and if they find that there is a chemical way of modifying their feelings, we may address the behaviour form of addiction, transforming it into a substance-related form of addiction.”
Disconnecting problem gamers
Dr Stavropoulos says it’s imperative we move to protect adolescents at risk of internet addiction with the introduction of measures, similar to responsible gambling legislation and regulations.
“In terms of prevention, there needs to be a legal framework that will oblige the companies making these games to protect gamers,” he says.