"Internet Addiction":
Addictive Behavior, Transference or More?

Michael Fenichel, Ph.D.




A look at internet relationships: Transference, Addiction, or Sublimation?




Much attention has been paid to the phenomenon of Internet Addiction, conceived of as a compulsive behavior, or craving for connectedness, or perhaps even a manifestation of transference or a reflection of object relations, or need-fulfillment. Clearly the life of an "Internet addict" can be as multiply-determined as Windows and Mac operating systems can be multi-tasked. Computer use is increasingly becoming integrated into daily life, and so both the temptations and opportunities for "addiction" seem to continue increasing, exponentially. It is easy to see the tremendous role which "websurfing" has come to play in the quantity and quality of life experiences, among a wide range of Internet afficionados. For both good and bad.

My work as a psychologist, as a volunteer in emergency communications in our nation's largest city, and as an Internet content provider and consumer, all lead me to an understanding of "Internet Addiction" which is clearly neither unidimensional nor uniquely psychoanalytical in explanation. In fact, interpersonal theory, structural theory, and learning theory converge to provide the well-heeled websurfer with an infinite opportunity for need gratification.

Whether the feedback from the net (the behavioral/social learning/narcissism components), the behavioral reinforcers which come from e-mail and chat contacts, or the opportunity to bind or sublimate aggressive or libidinal impulses (psychoanalytic imperatives)...it is clear that a great many people known to both professional therapists and probably to you the reader, are what we now refer to, perhaps with a chuckle, as "Internet addicts". While common nomenclature and historical perspective (which treats "addiction" as a compleat entity) may or may not support the use of a specific diagnostic entity, "Internet Addiction", the use of the term appears already well-established as a concept within our midst.

Is it possible that those of us who care to log on to our computers to examine ISP transference or Windows sublimation are merely projecting our own well-organized bundle of cathexes into one nice, neat, cuddly-sounding, politically-correct term? Or is this simply another type of compulsive disorder, or addiction, which escalates rapidly, finds many enablers, and is becoming a rather chic diagnosis, more so even than last year's "learning disability", or this year's "ADD"? Is the computer, for some, really a "transitional object" akin to a security blanket or the reliable purr of the family feline? A social reinforcer? Salve for the overactive mind with a very high arousal threshold? Can mastery over a computer or chat contacts constitute a straightforward reinforcement contingency, perhaps confirming one's very existence, if not other aspects of one's personality?

So, what do we make of the person that 10 mental health professionals (who just happen to understand Internet use) all simultaneously agree is an "Internet addict"? How should it be treated? Should it be? By whom? What are the criteria for diagnosis? What should they be in DSM VI? Surely overall life functioning has to be among the criteria, as should consideration of what may in effect be "hobby addiction" or "gadget addiction" or "information addiction", to use that paradigm, or perhaps, in contrast, what we're seeing is a form of social avoidance rather than transference neurosis. What are the daily life reinforcers outside of the computer screen?

For me the interesting thing is watching how the conceptualizers choose to portray "Internet addiction". I imagine it to be at least in part rather subjective, depending on our tendencies to be inclusive, precise, and perhaps a bit practice-savvy as well. I'm not sure that Managed Care is ready to cover it, and wonder whether it would cover a laptop if it does. (Come to think of it, I think I feel those symptoms coming on!)

I note some scientific studies being conducted with the intent of validating the construct of "Internet addiction". In fact, I applaud in particular the findings which purport addictive behavior in the context of the reinforcer, which goes far toward documenting the cognitive/behavioral component inherent in our "internet addict" population. However, it is clear from my own observation that those who spend a disproportional amount of energy and time relating to Unix servers rather than family or television, tend to have pervasive and characteristic cognitive styles which include a sort of "multi-tasking" with high-speed processing, and a loss of mid- and long-term goal directedness, diminished length of attention span, disrupted patterns of living (e.g., eating), and detached or disturbed social relationships, often using the computer as the focal point for all contact with the world. And so, at once, this "Internet addiction" appears to me to be both more and less than a unidimensional substance use disorder.

This is clearly an area ripe for further exploration, and one which might shed light on a wide range of topics relating to human needs, motivation, cognition, and behavior.


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[Updated] 2012: The above was written in the mid 1990's. As people who have read or heard my presentations know, a mantra of mine is how 'context is everything' - or at least it matters a great deal! In the mid to late 90's the Internet was full of 'newbies' and a first multiple-generation exposure to the potential, allure, and challenges of the Internet. Much has changed, with different generations also approaching communication, information, help-seeking, entertainment and socialization differently. [ See for example: Poke Me ]

Meanwhile, in a virtual eyeblink, since writing the above first-impression of how 'addictive' the Internet's many offerings might be, along came some new game-changing enticements, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Google +. There has been a significant impact across many domains, from a psychological perspective: cognition - from attention to 'multi-tasking' to 'group memory' & problem-solving strategies - and interpersonal relationships especially: social and group relationships, professional networking, marketing, media, and management of personal and public identity, to name a few of the most dramatic changes. Add to that how it all fits together in our collective 'device devotion' and our shared social contexts - peer groups, work life, personal hobbies and special interests too - and the picture becomes richer and more complex, while still rapidly changing as well.

In following the trends both demographically and psychologically, it would appear that 'Internet Addiction' is rather a broad term these days. Internet is everywhere and offers everything. Increasingly we hear about Facebook Addiction from our friends, colleagues, and popular press. This may not be surprising as Facebook continues an effort to be the 'one-stop-for-everything' center of focus for many people, where one finds limitless 'friends', games, activities, quizzes, news, video, photos... everything! (Meals and sleep optional).

That said, for those who are interested in recent studies and articles relating to 'Facebook Addiction' specifically, please visit the 'Facebook Addiction Disorder' page (link above). It begins with a short article and is followed by a growing list of resources and articles, both from research and 'popular press'/media.

Broadening the psychological/sociological discussion into the larger realm of 'cyberpsychology' (the intersection between human experience and computers/technology), there are many more articles and resources highlighting several aspects of our always-on lives, including cognitive, social, and media foci - @ www
CyberPsychology.com


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