June 17, 2019 11:40AM

Will “Internet Addiction” Be Our Next “Crisis?”

report on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition today discusses growing concerns about “internet addiction,” especially among adolescents. The reporter mentions that “internet addiction,” sometimes called “social media addiction,” is not recognized as a mental health disorder in the US, where the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) published by the American Psychiatric Association categorizes it as a “condition for further study.” This is not insignificant in light of the strong economic incentives for the psychiatric profession to medicalize behavioral problems. 

The World Health Organization recently recognized “internet gaming disorder” as an addiction in its eleventh revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), and China, South Korea, Japan, and other countries now consider “internet addiction” a mental health disorder.

The NPR report interviews a psychiatrist who believes that internet addiction is indeed a mental health disorder and laments the paucity of programs available to treat afflicted adolescents. Because it is not recognized as a disease in the US, treatment is not usually covered by health insurance. The psychiatrist tells the reporter that some clinicians creatively assign as a diagnosis one of the psychiatric co-morbidities that accompany almost all of their patients with internet addiction, in order to get insurance to pay for it. The fact that almost all cases come with attached co-morbidities creates a “chicken or egg” situation that is one of the reasons why many researchers are reluctant to conclude internet addiction is a distinct disorder. 

Therapists usually engage in treatment techniques that are similar for the treatment of other addictive disorders. The report highlights a 12-step program (similar to Alcoholics Anonymous) recently begun in Minnesota, whose director encourages the recognition of internet or social media addiction as a disease, in order to promote the proliferation of affordable rehab and other treatment programs across the country that would be covered by health insurance.

I have written about the dangerous tendency to medicalize behavioral patterns, so-called “social media addiction” in particular, and to overuse the label of addiction. This report from a respected media source can be expected to fuel more animated discussions about internet or social media addiction in the public square.

As I pointed out in a recent article at Reason.com, a meticulous examination of the evidence is crucial before concluding internet/social media addiction is an actual disorder. Such a determination may not just impact the fiscal stability of the health care system but, more importantly, may pose a potential threat to freedom of speech.