The most taken-for-granted concept is that there is an absolute definition for what is “normal.” No such definition exists. Hyperactive children were considered “normal” (or at least within the normal range) until ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) was discovered, researched, and created as a distinct diagnostic category. A woman who exhibited her independence and did not obey her husband in 1897 was just as likely to be diagnosed as having some type of “neurosis” and likely committed to a mental hospital. Nowadays, women who exhibit their independence are rightfully as “normal” as men who have done so since the beginning of time.
There is a tendency amongst professionals in the mental health field to look for and diagnose that which doesn’t fit within their cognitive paradigm of what is “normal.” I am not certain that this is an increasing trend, although the increased diagnosis of many disorders in the past decade might be attributed as much to this phenomenon as other explanations (e.g., better education, research, etc.).
My favorite example of this phenomenon, in my mind, is the tendency of mental health professionals to misunderstand and misdiagnose overuse of the Internet with little to no baseline data. How can one talk of “overuse” when the data which exists today is very preliminary in terms of “normal” Internet use.
IntelliQuest, a company who conducts surveys for the marketing industry, estimated that 51 million Americans are online in 2Q, 1997. They state that a “proportion of extremely active users (20%) who spend 10 hours or more per week online, but nearly 40% of all users said they were spending more time online than they did a month ago. Where are they finding the time? Most said by watching less television.” This survey is well-designed and respected within the industry as providing relatively accurate estimates.
Leonard Holmes, Ph.D. writes this week in an article about studies presented at the last APA convention in August, which have contradictory findings. One survey of online users found 19 hours per week of Internet use was the average (Brenner, 1997). Kathleen Scherer’s 1997 study of college students at the University of Texas at Austin found that pre-defined “dependent” users of the Internet spent an average of 11 hours online per week. Morahan-Martin and Schumaker found in a smaller survey that “pathological users” spent an average of 8.5 hours online per week. Keith Anderson’s preliminary results from a study of 1,000 students in multiple universities around the world found that for the total population of his subjects (includes users and non-users of the Internet), 9.5 hours per week is typical. Psych Central’s own survey suggests that the majority of our readers spend anywhere from 7 to 14 hours per week online.
Obviously, by looking at just the amount of time spent online, we cannot make a determination of what is “normal” and what is not. So how about if we looked at some of the other “criteria” being used by researchers to determine when Internet time is becoming problematic.
IntelliQuest’s survey findings state that people are most taking additional time spent online away from television. Is that so bad? Brenner (1997) found that existing criteria for the determination of addiction or addictive behavior can be found even amongst those who do not overuse the Internet. A full 80% of his subjects reported at least 5 of the 10 signs measured that the online world was interfering at least minimally with normal functioning. Scherer’s 1997 study only required that people meet 3 out of 10 similar criteria to be lapelled as “dependent.” Morahan-Martin and Schumaker (1997) found increased usage of online interactive games and FTP, but not online chat, amongst “pathological” users. Anderson’s study found an increase in games and FTP, but also a significant increase in chat as well. Anderson also discovered the need to control for type of college student under study, since his hypothesis seems to have been confirmed by his data. That hypothesis was that science and technical majors will spend significantly more time online than liberal arts majors. Both Scherer and Morahan-Martin & Schumaker’s studies were exclusively on undergraduate students without identifying and controlling for type of major of the student. Their data, therefore, may be biased.
So we have discovered that we cannot define overuse of the Internet based solely upon time spent online, since estimates still vary widely as to what is considered normal or appropriate (from 5 hours to 20 hours per week). We cannot examine criteria used to help diagnose other addictive disorders, since they appear to be relatively commonplace even amongst casual Internet users.
What are we left with in terms of a disorder specifically caused by the online world? Exactly where we were originally. No such disorder at this time has been proven to exist. Research to date is still muddy, inconclusive, preliminary and contradictory. Until much more careful research is conducted, overuse of the Internet may exist (just like people can spend too much time at work, to the detriment of their relationships, family life, personal enjoyment, etc.), but it is not a disorder.
Mental health professionals and researchers should stop trying to focus on proving that a disorder exists here (notable is the lack of research looking for a “workaholism” disorder). Time would be better spent understanding and examining the pros and cons of online use, and how to best help someone who might be overusing the Internet in an effort to cope with their real life problems, or lack thereof. Fifty years from now, when everyone is wired and connected online all the time, these debates will probably seem quaint and nonsensical. Because, after all, what is “normal” changes more often than we think!
Well, that’s all for this week. Take care and keep in good mental health…