Online Addiction

By Donald Christiansen

I no longer spend as much time in the gym, on the golf course, or traveling as I used to—or as I would like to. Instead I read, write and watch TV—perhaps too much of the latter.

But I don’t spend an excessive amount of time online. In this, according to studies by the experts, I am an exception. I like to believe that I can satisfy my information and communication needs by going online just once daily. Of course, when I am immersed in research for a particular project, this rule goes out the window.

The online addiction phenomenon has prompted these new expressions: FOMO (fear of missing out), FOBO (fear of being off the grid), and nomophobia (the fear of being without a mobile phone).

One source projects 2.67 billion social-network users by 2018. Another, that over one third of consumers worldwide will have a mobile phone, half of them with smartphone capability.

But how much time will such owners spend online? Will users be preoccupied with, distracted by, or addicted to social media? The editor of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Katina Michael, reports that social networking already accounts for 28 percent of time spent online. Teens between the ages of 15 and 19 average at least three hours per day using the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

At work, 60 to 80 percent of the time on the Internet is non-work-related, and consumes on average nearly one quarter of a worker’s day.


Overuse of the Internet has been termed Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD), as well as Pathological Internet Use (PIU).

The usage figures and increasing time spent online are indisputable, and have led to the conclusion by many psychologists that the situation is clearly addictive and can lead to depression and even suicide. As reported recently in Time magazine, Jean Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University, in a study of more than 500,000 U.S. adolescents, found that “kids who spent three hours a day or more on smartphones or other devices were 34% more likely to suffer at least one suicide-related behavior—including feeling hopeless or seriously considering suicide—than those who used devices two hours a day or less.” Among those who used devices five or more hours daily, 48% had at least one suicide-related outcome.

The Time article cited the attempted suicide of a 16-year-old. She had been depressed, without reason, worrying about her looks and “stalking models on Instagram,” and in the process losing sleep and eating poorly.

Fascination with the Internet clearly does not center on a single function. Engineers may depend on it principally for research. Teenagers rely on it for social interaction and entertainment.


Whether online seeking information or entertainment, we all browse. Why? It’s easy! In the middle of serious research we can be inspired by one questionable sentence to leap to another source, then another, and another, hoping to assemble a logical solution to the issue we are researching. And, frankly, we wonder how any single source can be the “best” one—accurate, complete, etc. We are also prompted to source-hop when we suspect what we believed to be an unbiased discussion is in fact a commercial in disguise.

A Brighter Outlook?

Among the researchers who have studied the PIU phenomenon, some do not agree that its designation as a mental disorder has been proven. Instead they propose that, for some who do have a proven mental disorder, the Internet may be an escape mechanism.


It has also been suggested that with the passage of time (in some cases several years) excessive users will phase out their interest in certain activities (online chat rooms, for example). Psychiatrist John Grohol has proposed three stages for Pathological Internet Use. The first stage is new user enchantment or obsession, the second is disillusionment with certain aspects and their consequent avoidance, and the third is balanced or normal use.

I hope he is right. The result might be, for underusers like me, somewhat greater use of the Internet for entertainment purposes plus its more efficient use for research. And, for the Pathological Internet User, a more comfortable and less time-consuming use—one characterized by far less frequent site hopping.

Oh, wait! Isn’t this hopeful outcome just unsupported speculation? Excuse me while I go back online to probe the matter further.


Donald Christiansen

Donald Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. His Backscatter columns can be found here.

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