Are You Among the 400 Million Internet Addicts?

Posted on September 9th, 2015
Posted in Addiction

Do you ever find yourself browsing the Internet mindlessly, even though you have nothing in particular to do online? Does your time online impact your work or home responsibilities or your relationships? If this sounds familiar, there’s a chance you’re in the midst of an Internet addiction. Until recently, estimates of how common Internet addiction is have varied, but a new study aims to both pin down how many people suffer from the condition and, crucially, determine whether it’s the availability of the Internet or quality of life that drives the variation in the rates of the condition around the world.

Defining Internet Addiction

The Internet has the potential to be addictive for the same reasons as other behavioral addictions like gambling: activities can affect brain chemicals just like drugs do, and when people become dependent on these artificially altered levels, addiction has taken hold. This tells you why it can occur, but precise criteria are necessary in order to identify cases and estimate how common it is.

The two main screening tools used are the Young Diagnostic Questionnaire and the Internet Addiction Test, with the latter being an expanded version of the former. This includes 20 questions covering things such as staying online longer than you intended, preferring the excitement of the Internet to intimacy with your partner, whether your job, grades or schoolwork suffer because of your time spent online, whether you block out unpleasant thoughts about life by going online and whether you’ve tried to cut down your time spent online but failed. These are marked from a scale of 0 to 5 (ranging in frequency from never to always), with scores above 50 being classified as moderate to severe Internet addiction.

Competing Hypotheses: What Leads to Internet Addiction?

The study looked at 164 different samples from pre-existing reports, covering over 89,000 people from 31 nations spanning seven world regions, using these criteria to both establish worldwide rates of Internet addiction and determine what situations lead to it. The two possible explanations are that the availability of the Internet is directly related to the rates of addiction and the idea that the prevalence of Internet addiction is actually related to the quality of life in the country or region.

The availability hypothesis would predict that those regions where larger percentages of people go online have the highest rates of addiction. Throughout the world, 39 percent of the population has access to the Internet. The highest rate is found in North America, where 85 percent of people have access, so this would be the area expected to have the most Internet addicts.

Alternatively, the quality-of-life hypothesis suggests that people go online to escape from stress in the real world, basically using the Internet as a coping mechanism. Quality of life can be based on self-reports, but economists suggest that a country’s quality of life is related to environmental concerns (pollution, safety and time spent in traffic), economic issues and healthcare-related measures. This hypothesis suggests that those in the lowest-ranked regions for quality of life would have higher addiction rates, irrespective of how widespread the Internet is.

How Common Is Internet Addiction?

The estimate for the rates of Internet addiction around the world based on these studies is 6 percent, three times as high as the problem gambling rate (which is as high as 2 percent) and suggesting 400 million Internet addicts worldwide. The highest rate of Internet addiction was found in the Middle East, where 10.9 percent of people were addicted, and the lowest rate was found in Northern and Western Europe, where just 2.6 percent were classified as having the addiction. In North America, the rate was 8 percent. This obviously doesn’t correspond to the simpler availability hypothesis.

In fact, the evidence suggests that the quality-of-life hypothesis was much more accurate, with prevalence being higher in countries with increased time spent in traffic, pollution and general dissatisfaction with life. Although the authors note that there was no data for Africa, the study points to stress and life satisfaction over the availability of the Internet as a deciding factor. This makes sense, as other addictions are well-known to emerge as poor coping mechanisms for negative emotions and stress.

Improving Quality of Life to Reduce Internet Addiction

The finding points to one clear course of action to reduce the prevalence of Internet addiction: improve people’s quality of life. By improving transport networks and reducing pollution, stress could be reduced and therefore Internet addiction would become less common. Additionally, if pollution were reduced and people’s surrounding environments were improved, they may be more willing to pursue outdoor activities to relieve stress rather than spend time online. This may be a little idealistic—after all, improving quality of life in the Middle East, say, is hardly an overnight job—but it points very clearly to a solution: make people happier, give them more opportunities and Internet addiction rates will be reduced. On an individual level it becomes more practical, though. By giving people the skills to cope with negative feelings without relying on addictive behaviors, they’ll be less likely to retreat into the online world when faced with difficult emotions.

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