Image: Michael Mandiberg/Flickr
According to new research just published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, University of Hong Kong researchers estimate that 6 percent of the world is addicted to the internet.
That's an insanely high number. According to the UN World Drug Report 2014, only between 3.5 percent and 7 percent of the world population aged 15 to 64, had used an illicit drug at least once in the previous year. Pathological gambling—something common enough that even Marge Simpson is not beyond its grasp—only claims between .2 and 2.1 percent.
This is a 6 percent addiction rate for the internet. Only 39 percent of the world even has access to the internet.
Of course, the concept of drug and gambling addictions is older and more familiar than that of internet addiction, which defined as “an impulse control problem characterized by an inability to inhibit Internet use that exerts an adverse impact on major life domains (e.g., interpersonal relations, physical health).”
The study notes internet addiction is “currently not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition.” Nevertheless, according to the study's authors, internet addiction is “generally regarded as a disorder of concern because the neural abnormalities (e.g., atrophies in dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) and cognitive dysfunctions (e.g., impaired working memory) associated with IA mimic those related to substance and behavioral addiction. Moreover, IA is often comorbid with mental disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression.”
Their study is a meta-analysis on the results of two self-reported surveys, the Young Diagnostic Questionnaire (YDQ) and Internet Addiction Test (IAT), which ask about “loss of control of internet use” and “withdrawal symptoms resulting from restricted Internet use” in eight and 20 questions respectively.
Conspicuously, even though they found surveys from 31 countries across seven regions, they couldn't find surveys for anywhere on the continent of Africa. As the second-most populous continent, it's exclusion is enough to make you wonder about that “worldwide” estimate. And for that matter, it's not a universally recognized affliction, and it's based on self-reporting.
Contrary to the researchers' expectations, simply having more internet penetration wasn't correlated to internet addiction, as it was lowest in Northern and Western Europe, a region with relatively high rates of internet use. The highest rates of internet addiction were actually found in the Middle East. Instead, the correlates to internet addiction were similar to that of other addictions.
The countries with the following characteristics tended to have a higher prevalence of IA: perception of less life satisfaction in general, greater overall pollution (primarily air pollution), greater traffic commute time consumption, and lower national income. Taken together, these results provided tentative support for the quality of (real) life hypothesis, which proposed an inverse link between IA prevalence and quality of (real) life.
The researchers suggest that stress and pollution are driving people inside and onto the internet for emotional comfort they can't get IRL.
As someone who finds the notion of seeking emotional comfort on the internet akin to seeking physical comfort in an Iron Maiden, I wonder if I'm actually not as addicted as I think. As much as I compulsively pull out my phone, during my brief internet vacations, I can’t think of any signs of withdrawal.
That's kind of hopeful, because I just found out that I also apparently listened to Spotify for 35 days this year, which means I was basically also on the internet 10 percent of the year, and that’s scary. I promise I'll go outside, okay? Just as soon as it gets less polluted.