In our increasingly digital age, addiction to internet use is growing in prevalence, and has recently received more and more attention from medical and scientific researchers. Nowhere is the problem more alarming than with adolescents, who have the greatest access to internet-based technologies, and also have the most at stake developmentally.
Some rather sensationalized news sources have even referred to the rise of internet addiction as a new “electric heroin,” citing the research demonstrating how internet use and serious substance abuse demonstrate similarities in their symptomologies and in the way that they stimulate the reward pathways of the brain.
While the danger and addictive potential of heroin use makes the comparison a little strained, excessive internet use is nonetheless a condition that merits serious attention.
The History Of Internet Addiction
The possibility for addictive behavior related to internet use was first proposed in 1995. The term was initially used in jest, because at the time the rarity of personal computers and the unlikelihood of any individual developing an addiction to internet use made the idea ridiculous.
In the ensuing years, however, the explosion of internet technologies rapidly made internet addiction a reality. By 1998 a diagnostic tool known as the Internet Addiction Tool (IAT) was developed by Dr. Kimberly Young in order to assess whether an individual’s internet use was pathological.
The assessment was based on the criteria for pathological gambling listed in the DSM-IV (the American Psychological Association’s diagnostic manual for mental disorders). This was based on the logic that despite the fact that internet addiction had not yet been recognized by the psychological establishment as a real disorder, the symptoms it presented were similar enough to gambling addiction that the two could be diagnosed in a comparable fashion. When the DSM-V was released in 2013, pathological gambling was updated to a condition now called “gambling disorder,” but problem internet use was once again left out.
Notwithstanding, psychological and medical researchers across the world have begun devoting major resources towards studying the effects of internet use, especially on school age populations ranging from ages 5-22. This field of research has been especially active in Asian countries such as China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan; countries in which the vast majority of the population have access to the internet and incidence of internet addiction is especially high. Recent studies have found that an estimated 19.8% of adolescents in Taiwan and 20% of adolescents in Korea screened positive for either internet addiction or excessive internet use.
The Diverse Manifestations of Excessive Internet Use
Internet Addiction has been grossly understudied, and additional research is required to establish prevalence rates in European and North American countries. The various diagnostic tools currently available are often times outdated, and assess patterns of internet use that are no longer relevant. Future research is needed to validate measuring tools that more accurately reflect the actual patterns of internet use in today’s adolescents.
In the 1990s, the internet functions available to the average user were so limited that one of the only possible types of pathological use was compulsively checking websites, in a pattern that closely mirrored compulsive gambling. However, today’s adolescents use the internet for so many different things that, depending on their pattern of use, the internet can either enable or catalyze a host of different disordered patterns of thinking.
For example, online gaming can be associated with the impulsivity often marked in cases of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Adolescents with a bent towards narcissistic personality disorder might gravitate towards excessive self-promotion on networking outlets like Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. The constant stream of world news and cultural information present on social media websites can enable a crippling fear of missing out (or “FOMO”) that might co-occur with an anxiety disorder. And the internet also provides opportunities for the destructive cyber-bullying perpetuated by over-aggressive adolescents.
Of course it is impossible to determine if the disordered or problematic patterns of thinking listed above are caused by internet use or if the internet use simply enables preexisting pathological tendencies to manifest. It is also possible that there is a reciprocal relationship, with excessive internet use both fostering and enabling the expression of negative behavior patterns.
Diagnosis and Understanding
While this diversity of the symptomology of internet addiction makes it difficult to issue blanket statements, the important thing is to have the discernment to distinguish between frequent internet use and the excessive patterns of use that can lead to addiction.
Internet use should not be judged to be excessive until several of the following criteria are met (among others): impaired psychological well-being; worsened academic performance; physical abnormalities including back pain, eye strain or carpal tunnel syndrome; severely decreased family and peer interactions; and finally the traditional markers of addiction, including increased tolerance, signs of withdrawal after lack of use, disregard for consequences, and difficulty controlling behavior.
While discussions of internet addiction can often alarm parents who may believe that their child spends too much time online, it’s important not to jump to conclusions nor to inhibit overall internet use wholesale. Internet use is not per se harmful or inhibiting; in fact, there is a mountain of evidence that adolescents with regular internet access generally have higher test scores, a greater motivation to learn, greater access to health information, and a general feeling of empowerment compared to adolescents without internet access.
As was noted above, there are many diverse uses for internet technologies, and each has the potential to enable various different disordered patterns of thinking. What is required in such a complex situation is a sensitivity to the overall developmental context of an adolescent’s physical, emotional, and social situation.
While internet addiction has recently been given increasing attention by mental health professionals and should be taken seriously, parents of adolescents should not jump to conclusions. Using the criteria listed above, in addition to outside research and, if necessary, consultation with a certified health professional, parents of adolescents can be more secure in their ability to discern between the excessive internet use that marks internet addiction and the frequent internet use that marks 21st century adolescence.
By Dr. Syras Derksen,
Guan, S. S. A., & Subrahmanyam, K. (2009). Youth Internet Use: Risks and opportunities. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 22(4), 351-356.
Ong, S. H., & Tan, Y. R. (2014). Internet Addiction in Young People. Annals of Academy of Medicine, Singapore, 43(7), 378-382.
Tao, R., Huang, X., Wang, J., Zhang, H., Zhang, Y., & Li, M. (2010). Proposed Diagnostic Criteria for Internet Addiction. Addiction, 105(3), 556-564.
Wallace, P. (2014). Internet Addiction Disorder and Youth. EMBO Reports, 15(1), 12-16.
Using pornography changes people's attitudes, relationship commitment, sexuality, ability to think, and likelihood of acting aggressively towards women. The research, much of which is very recent, is making it clear that pornography has multiple negative effects on users.
This article will only discuss the effects of pornography on men. Women do use pornography to a lesser extent and the effects of this use are less clear.
Pornography has been show to negatively effect men's attitudes towards women. Pornography users have been shown to have less egalitarian views, but it is unclear whether pornography use is causing this difference or if it is just that less egalitarian men are more likely to use pornography.
However, a piece of research was conducted which had some randomly chosen men view pornography first and then measured where they landed on the "hostile sexism" scale. The men who watched pornography were higher on this scale than the men who didn't. This research suggests that pornography is causing men to become more sexist in their attitude.
Of course, there are many out there who would not be surprised by this research. Many view pornography as degrading and objectifying towards women. Generally speaking, people's beliefs will generally become consistent with their behaviour. So even if a non-sexist man begins using pornography he will generally begin to believe that it is right to objectify and degrade women.
Pornography use reduces relationship commitment. Men who use pornography are more likely to have an affair. It isn't just that cheating men are likely to use pornography, the pornography seems to cause the cheating.
In one experiment some randomly chosen men were shown pornography and, afterwards, these men were more likely to see other women as romantic alternatives. In another experiment a group of randomly chosen regular porn users stopped using pornography for three weeks. At the end of the three weeks these men were more committed to their relationship.
A number of other interesting experiments have been done looking at how porn users are different in relationships. For example, in one experiment porn users were found to be more likely to flirt when chatting online. In another experiment couples were asked to complete a task together and their interactions were videotaped. The couples' interactions were then rated by observers on how committed they seemed. The couples in which the man was using porn were rated lower on commitment than the non-porn couples.
Research has shown that male porn use predicts lower sex quality for both men and women. Men often report not being as attracted to their spouse when they use pornography and this may be part of the reason for the lowered quality. Sexuality, like any other behaviour, can be modified to an extent by reward and punishment. If a man is regularly having rewarding sexual experiences to pornography, he will begin to need that kind of stimulation to achieve orgasm.
Exposure to pornography has also been shown to predict adolescent uncertainty about sexual beliefs and sexual orientation. It is impossible to say if the pornography is causing this uncertainty or if it just that uncertain youth seek out pornography, but the connection is concerning. If you do find that your child is viewing pornography, it would be good to have a discussion about sexuality and pornography to help him or her manage potential feelings of uncertainty.
There is now research showing that pornography users have more difficulty with attention and working memory. These differences do not only occur during pornography use, but continue throughout the day. This seems to be supported by porn users indicating that they were able to think better after ending their porn use.
Pornography seems to cause men to be more physically punitive towards women. In a very interesting experiment some randomly chosen men were shown pornography and some were not. Both groups were brought back a week later and paired with a female who was part of the researchers team. At the beginning of their meeting the woman mildly rejected the man by saying that she wasn't attracted to him. They then played a guessing game and the man had the option of physically punishing the woman if she got the answer wrong. The men who had been exposed to pornography were more likely to punish the woman.
It has been suggested that pornography makes men more likely to act out violently against women. This type of research would be unethical, so it has never been proven.
Couples Therapy for Porn Addiction
For some couples pornography is an issue and for others it is not. When couples come for therapy because of a pornography issue therapists differ in how they approach the issue. Some will encourage the woman to accept the pornography and begin trying to help her with the issues the pornography is causing. Other therapists will accept the couple's assessment of the problem and begin treating the pornography usage. Often in these situations the porn usage has become an addiction. If it weren't an addiction, the man would likely have given up the porn usage when he realized it was an issue for his partner.
When pornography is an issue it can feel like an affair. If the female partner is not comfortable with pornography, porn usage will usually either stop or become secretive. When the usage continues in secret, the lying, the feeling of there being these "other women", the loss of intimacy, and the fact that the man is seeking comfort from another source makes the dynamics in the relationship very similar to those created by cheating. Sometimes the relationship between the pornography and the man can be stronger than the relationship between the couple. Couples therapy can help in these instances by helping the couple to unite as they work on the pornography addiction as a team.
There are many negative effects of pornography, but one of the most concerning aspects of pornography use is that users seem oblivious to how it is changing them. In fact pornography users often report feeling positively about their porn usage. Unfortunately, this leaves users as often the last to realize how pornography has damaged their relationships and their psyche. Pornography usage is growing every decade and wireless technology is making it more accessible to young people. As pornography grows it becomes even more important for society to understand the dangers that are associated with pornography so everyone can make decisions and take actions that are informed.
By Dr. Syras Derksen
Ford, J. J., Durtschi, J. A., & Franklin, D. L. (2012). Structural therapy with couple battling pornography addiction. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 40, 336-348.
Gwinn, A. M., Lambert, N. M., Fincham, F. D., & Maner, J. K. (2013). Pornography, relationship alternatives, and intimate extradyadic behaviour. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4, 697-704.
Hald, G. M., Malamuth, N. N., & Lange, T. (2013). Pornography and sexist attitudes among heterosexuals. Journal of Communication, 63, 638-660.
Laier, C., Schulte, F. P., & Brand, M. (2012). Pornographic picture processing interferes with working memory performance. Journal of Sex Research, 50, 642-652.
Lambert, M. N., Negash, S., Stillman, T. F., Olmstead, S. B., & Fincham, F. D. (2012). A love that doesn't last: Pornography consumption and weakened commitment to one`s romantic partner. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31, 410-438.
Peter, J. & Valkenburg, P. M. (2010). Adolescents' use of sexually explicit internet material and sexual uncertainty: The role of involvement and gender. Communication Monographs, 77, 357-375.
Poulsen, F. O., Busby, D. M., & Galovan, A. M. (2013). Pornography use: Who uses it and how it is associated with couple outcomes. Journal of Sex Research, 50, 72-83.
Thomas, L. A., & Gorzalka, B. B. (2013). Effects of sexual coercion proclivity and cognitive priming on sexual aggression in the laboratory. Journal of Sex Research, 50, 190-203.
Wright, P. J. (2013). U.S. males and pornography, 1973-2010: Consumption, predictors, correlates. Journal of Sex Research, 50, 60-71.