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No Science Behind ‘Internet Addiction’

The number of people seeking treatment for ‘Internet addiction’ is increasing, but a review of 417 articles reveals there is little hard science for a distinct diagnosis.  

“We get a lot of calls from people asking for treatment, including for Internet addiction,” said Dr. Benjamin Silverman, an addiction psychiatry fellow at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston.  “So we asked: What is this?”

Dr. Benjamin Siliverman (photo by D. McNamara)

He searched PubMed, PsycINFO, and Google Scholar. “Basically, there is no good science.” No one has quantified this well, not even among self-identified ‘addicts.’” 

Instead, Dr. Silverman proposed a ‘portal hypothesis’ ‑ that the Internet facilitates or reflects another addiction (think online gambling) or psychiatric condition. In other words, spending a lot of time online may be just a means to an end. 

“We’ve found, of the patients we’ve seen, most have a major psychiatric comorbidity such as depression, social anxiety disorder, or OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder],” Dr. Silverman said at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry. “That seems to be driving a lot of the Internet use.” 

It is unlikely ‘Internet addiction’ will be included as a distinct diagnosis in the next revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM), the reference psychiatrists use to diagnosis mental illness), Dr. Charles O’Brien said. “There are insufficient data, but it probably will be put in the appendix to encourage more research.” Dr. O’Brien is Chair of the DSM-V Substance-Related Disorders Work Group and director of the Center for Studies of Addictions at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. 

And, yes, I realize you’re reading this blog via the Internet.  

–Damian McNamara, @MedReporter on twitter

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