Prime Time Crime


(Published in the Chilliwack Times week of Mar. 24, 2008)


Obsessed with new disorders


  By John Martin

It was probably inevitable that the psychiatry industry would advocate excessive Internet use be classified as a mental illness. After all, every human vice from shopping to drinking coffee is now formally recognized as one mental disorder or another. There's even an official disorder for people who snore. And now an editorial in this month's American Journal of Psychiatry calls for the inclusion of Internet addiction in the ever-expanding inventory of disorders.

Clearly, many people spend far too much time on the web and might want to think about cutting back. But to make the leap in logic that disproportionate Internet time is tantamount to a mental illness is a bit of a stretch.

The idea of medicalizing Internet use isn't new. The concept actually started as a joke in 1995 when Ivan Goldberg, a New York psychiatrist, urged his colleagues to formally recognize "Internet Addiction Disorder." He was flooded with correspondence from peers who wished to discuss, explore and study this newfound addiction.

Counselling groups started forming and self-described addicts came out of the woodwork, baring their souls and sharing the pain and suffering of being an Internet addict.

Goldberg cheekily set up a web-based support group for patients suffering from the disorder and his fellow psychiatrists were clueless that a treatment strategy to address Internet addiction probably wouldn't involve sitting down at a keyboard. He then infamously likened his online support group to holding AA meetings in a tavern.

Goldberg soon came clean and admitted the whole thing was a gag and there was no such thing as "Internet Addiction Disorder."

But the concept of Internet use as an addiction took on a cyber-life of its own and became a common topic as the masses embraced the web. Now there is considerable support and momentum to formally recognize the phenomenon as an actual mental illness and include it in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; the encyclopedia of official disorders and diagnosis criteria.

We're clearly obsessed with labelling and categorizing perfectly normal human behaviour as some form of disorder that must be diagnosed and treated. Boys who fidget and look out the window during school are assigned a learning disorder and medicated. Shy kids are said to be suffering from social phobia and are pushed into treatment. There's even "Developmental Arithmetic Disorder" to get boys and girls who don't do their homework into therapy. In 1952 there were 192 mental health conditions. A few decades later that number nearly doubled. The new version of the statistical manual is due in 2012 and will no doubt add to the list.

But Internet addiction? Goldberg noted, "I don't think Internet addiction disorder exists any more than tennis addictive disorder, bingo addictive disorder, and TV addictive disorder exist. People can overdo anything. To call it a disorder is an error."

Of course, many people need to wind down the amount of time they spend in front of a computer. Whether someone is surfing, chatting, downloading music, gaming or watching pornography, an inordinate amount of time online will surely cut into family, work and other priorities.

But for the psychiatric community to have the power to flippantly designate such behaviour as a disorder or mental illness is highly problematic.

Perhaps while considering how much time we waste on the web it might be worth simultaneously addressing the unwarranted attention we give to a psychiatric industry that feels the need to regularly invent new disorders and then come running to the rescue with their brand new drugs and therapies.

And on top of that, they don't get the joke even after it's explained to them.

John Martin is a Criminologist at the University College of the Fraser Valley and can be contacted at


Prime Time Crime

Contributing 2008