Psychiatrist Jerald Block believes more should be done to recognise "pathological computer use" (PCU) and to devise ways to treat it. PCU is not yet formally recognised as a psychiatric diagnosis but the "condition" may find its way into the next edition of DSM - the psychiatry's diagnostic bible.
Block says it's been proposed that four criteria be met for a diagnosis of PCU: Computer use must be excessive (taking context into account); there must be signs of tolerance (a need to spend more time on a computer or games console to achieve the same level of satisfaction); the computer use must be mood altering; and finally and most importantly, the computer use must have led to problems, for example with relationships.
Block believes that because therapists are generally interested in people rather more than technology, they are often ill-equipped to help people suffering from excessive computer use. "As a result," he warns, "the therapist will readily find the concomitant diagnoses without realising there is the compounding issue of pathological computer use." Radical interventions in Korea apparently involve sending people to technology-free rural retreats. Yet a week of bucolic bliss has been found to provoke a computer binge on return.
One reason some people spend hours at a computer is to play massive online role-playing games. Block says the ways these games blur the distinction between reality and fiction reminds him of the difficulties faced by people with schizophrenia:
"Given enough exposure to virtual reality, people cannot help but begin to question whether their real lives are merely simulations of life. The concept is subversive and potentially toxic to the human mind. More-over, it combines in a particularly noxious way with compulsive computer use. When technology is used compulsively, it soaks up at least 10 to 12 hours a day; it redefines relationships to include virtual entities and objects, like the computer itself; it encourages processing emotion through the computer."Block is also concerned by the ethical issues raised by the concept of virtual sex, which often involves players' digital representations (their "avatars") meeting in a virtual bedroom to watch real-life blue movies together. But as Block explains, things can get ethically messy:
"...people sometimes prostitute out their avatars. They participate in sex for virtual money. What if someone only selected virtual prostitutes that were designed to look like children? Certainly this is an enactment of which a therapist should be aware. Would this suggest a risk of paedophilia in real life? Or does discharging the impulse in the virtual world in effect prevent it from emerging in the real world? We can theorise, but we do not actually know. This is not some thought experiment; it happens and we need answers."
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.
Link to Standpoint essay (open access).
Link to Mind Hacks post on why there is no such thing as internet addiction.