PHUKET: In Daxing, a suburb outside of Beijing, young patients live in guarded cells behind walls topped with barbed wire. They are given medication, participate in therapy and adhere to a physical and dietary regimen to treat their supposed disorder: internet addiction. The problem and its alleged cures had become so great that in 2009, the Chinese government banned physical punishment to wean adolescents from the internet and had previously outlawed the use of shock treatment to treat the disorder.

China was among the first countries to label “internet addiction” as a clinical disorder.

The Bangkok Post, citing a government-sponsored survey, reported last October that an estimated 2.7 million young Thais are addicted to video games and online activities.

Associate Professor Chanvit Pornnoppadol, of the department of psychiatry, faculty of medicine, at Siriraj Hospital, said the survey was conducted by the Ministry of Culture, the Department of Mental Health and the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Rajanakarindra Institute between March and June 2013. It involved 20,000 children nationwide.

An e-book search for the term “internet addiction” produces 117 titles such as, Internet Addiction: The Ultimate Guide for How to Overcome an Internet Addiction for Life and, The Internet Addiction Cure – The Ultimate Guide To Help You Walk Away From The Computer. In addition to ultimate guides there are books such as, I was an Internet Addict, a digital diet four-step plan to break your addiction books to help you recognize signs of internet addiction, books promising to lead you away from addiction in 21 days, and books guaranteed to get you “web sober”.

Researchers have gotten involved too. In a study supported by the National Natural Sciences Foundation of China, scientists found that in young people, internet addiction disorder (IAD) is associated with structural abnormalities in the brain. The researchers’ results suggested that, “long-term internet addiction would result in structural brain alterations, which probably contributed to chronic dysfunction in subjects with IAD”.

Let’s take a step back for a minute. First, the research in China is extremely preliminary. There were no safeguards to check whether there were pre-existing differences in the subjects identified as internet addicted and those who were not. So, it’s impossible to know if time spent on the internet was causing brain changes or the pre-existing differences in the individuals led them to spend more time on the internet. Second, because this was not a controlled experiment, other variables such as differences in diet could have led to the observed brain differences. Third, the diagnosis of internet addiction was made based upon reports from the subjects themselves as to the hours they spent on the internet, which is unsubstantiated data for a diagnosis.

Finally, because the researchers were looking only at the negative effects brought about by “internet addiction”, they were not alert to whether the brain differences they saw in the individuals they studied might actually be beneficial – such as the formation of new synapses related to creative ways of thinking about problems. We know, for example, that experience can influence the synaptic organization of the brain and perhaps some of the differences the researchers saw were not abnormalities but efficiencies.

In the 1980s, the book When Society Becomes an Addict, attracted a lot of attention. The author, Anne Wilson Schaef, identified as an addiction expert, suggested that, “the system in which we live is an addictive system,” referring to the West. Schaef wrote that we, “must admit that the society we care about has a disease and can recover from that disease.” According to Schaef, we had all become addicts.

While Schaef’s writing was radical, it was a rather unfortunate outcome of a trend that had begun in the 1970s to pathologize behavior. People that ate too much chocolate were chocoholics and people that shopped until they dropped were shopoholics. Fortunately, that tendency to label excessive behaviors as addictions, disorders and diseases reversed itself in the West.

The most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V, published in 2013) is the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) classification and diagnostic tool. In the United States, the DSM serves as an authority for psychiatric diagnosis. Internet addiction disorder (IAD) is not a recognized mental disorder in the DSM-V; gambling disorder is the only non-substance related addictive disorder.

One might hope that behaviors would be depathologized in Asia as well. People would be better served, not by treating problematic internet use by young people as a clinical disorder, but by examining ways in which young people might more constructively spend their time.

Encouraging research in that regard is the work of Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. He has recently written the book Redirect – The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. Wilson argues, and studies support the proposition, that the best way to get young people to change maladaptive behavior is by getting them involved in volunteering to help others. Channeling youth into constructive behavior is a better course of action than labeling them addicts and treating them as sick individuals.

— Patrick Mattimore