Law in the Internet Society
Feeding the Addiction

In 2009 China is expected to be the first country in the world to recognize “internet addiction” as a clinical disorder and register the disease with the World Health Organization.

Perhaps this action would trigger a global following, bringing attention the very prominent and quickly developing issue, and hopefully aim at, whenever possible, creating regulations for the phenomenon that is causing this very serious newly established disease.

Chinese psychologist Tao Ran, the researcher behind this initiative, concluded on the basis of his four-year study that the condition is legitimate and is similar to compulsive gambling or alcoholism. Tao Ran estimated that an average Internet addict spends just over six hours of time unrelated to work or study online, consumed by anything ranging from web surfing, to shopping, gambling, gaming or cyber sex. This figure is almost identical to that, established by the American researchers. In fact, Tao’s American colleague Dr. Kimberly S. Young of University of Pittsburgh at Bradford also defined Internet addiction as an impulse control disorder most similarly characterized with the diagnosis of substance abuse or gambling compulsion as (DSM-IV) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Despite the fact that, according to the Kaiser foundation study “average American kid between 8 and 18-years-old spends eight-and-a-half hours a day on a computer, listening to an iPod, watching TV, or paying attention to some form of digital technology” fully qualifying for the diagnosis and despite Dr. Young’s research the addiction is still not medically recognized in the United States. Such conduct puts the US behind China and other countries like Australia and Greece, both of which passed legislation to limit or prohibit the use of some of the technologies, among them gambling and gaming, blamed for aggravating the condition.

The latter, online gaming, is especially alarming since it targets adolescents, a population already impulsive and overexposed to the new media: “adolescents are more vulnerable to pathological internet use as they have less ability to control their enthusiasm for something that awakens their interests,” (Depression and Internet Addiction in Adolescents, Jee Hyun Ha, and others, Psychopathology, 2007). In addition, pathological Internet use changes the patterns in the ways the youth learns, communicates with each other and forms social bonds. It is only logical to assume that the surplus of information on the Internet leads to attention deficiency, triggering the Attention Deficiency Disorder, (ADD). Indeed, Dr. Young’s subjects “have reported that their inability to control internet usage has impaired their academic, personal, financial, occupational and physical lives.” It might not be too long before we see how the whole nation is slipping away clutched in the hands of addiction; test scores decrease together with the quantity of absorbed knowledge in schools and colleges; GDP stalls due to increased inefficiency of workforce glued to the screens for reasons other than work; social institutions, as that of a marriage, become obsolete in favor of virtual relationships.

During the time of financial crisis when depression and morbidity in the society are at the all time high, forming a perfect climate for the development of an addiction, how long do we have to wait for the government to take the initiative on the issue? But if we look closely at the history of telecommunications legislation, in particular, Telecommunication Act of 1996 we might think that the government has actually started this pandemic, and what is even worse, it did it on purpose.

Before the absolute and victorious integration of the Internet in the United States, television was responsible for preparing the grounds for the mass coercion that happens today. By virtually giving away broadcasting licenses to the corporations the act initiated a flood of uncontrolled programming and advertising, turning the viewers in the “market for eyeballs”. Media powered by advertising has become more cognitively savvy, using all the strategies available to lure the eyeballs. As a result, just as the media flooded with advertising, now the Internet is flooded with infinite offers, triggering impulses, the same impulses that also trigger the addiction, now a disorder that transcends multiple levels. Those already suffering from addiction to one element of cyber pastime just like those who are depressed or have impaired or insufficiently mature judgment are more likely fall victims to more addictions.

But the Internet is a two edged sword. Society reaps and recognizes numerous positive externalities that the new media brings, thus it would never allow the Internet to be banned. In such a case, it has to be regulated. Yet, since the addictions go hand in hand a complex, encompassing approach is needed to address the issue of regulation.

The opponents of the regulation, in light of the complex nature of addiction, could bring a cause and effect argument blaming adjacent pre-existing disorders, such as depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder that did not originate in the Internet, on the outburst of Internet addiction. However, it is a two way street where one condition exacerbates the other. Given the severity and the scope of the issue, still regulation would be beneficial to many.

Among other obstacles to regulation internationally there would be conflicting legal systems and discrepancies between the networks, while domestically there is the First Amendment protection that has allowed much questionable and even illegal elsewhere content, such as hate speech distribution, [[prohibited in France, to appear online in the US.

Looking at the precedents of gambling regulations in countries like Australia, voluntary adaptation and compliance with the specific codes of conduct could be something that the domestic sites could follow. However, it is not realistic to expect that every site in whole entity of the Internet will be covered with seals of compliance.

What needs to be done first is recognizing the Internet addiction as disorder domestically. This would help generate the funds and establish treatment facilities, as well as include the disorder into the health care plans and finally create an independent regulatory board. Raising awareness on the issue will be of particular importance to the parents of the minors, responsible for actively safeguarding the welfare of their children. The government should take a broader role in sponsoring and publishing the research and the resources on how to fight the addiction both online and off.

-- ValentinaGurney - 23 Dec 2008


First, I think your cited source may be somewhat problematic. Based on the articles I've read, Tao Ran is not just any psychologist, but one employed by the Chinese military. The “clinic” for internet “addicts” he runs is located on military base outside Beijing where patients are held against their will, medicated, subjected to electric shocks, and forced to undergo boot camp-style training. Given the Chinese government's attitude towards efforts by the general population to interact, communicate and organize, I think much more skepticism than you express is in order when a psychologist representing the Chinese security services announces that any young person spending significant amounts of time on the Internet, not related to work or studying, is an “addict” in need of “treatment.” That the “treatment” seems to mainly involve boot camp-style suppression of individual thought and action and extensive playing with fake machine guns seems especially telling, at least to me.

More importantly, I think that the general assumptions that one can be addicted to the Internet and that such an addiction is measured solely in terms of the amount of time spent on it are fundamentally flawed. Without a doubt there are activities that lend themselves to compulsive participation, such as gambling, which the Internet allows people to participate in more than they otherwise could. However, there is no reason to believe, as Mr. Tao apparently does, that time spent on the Internet not related to work or studying is somehow time poorly spent or indicative of a problem. Perhaps, the “average American kid between 8 and 18-years-old spends eight-and-a-half hours a day on a computer, listening to an iPod, watching TV, or paying attention to some form of digital technology,” because they understand much better than their parents or Mr. Tao how to access the wealth of useful content on the Internet. Certainly, the seven or so hours I spent listening to a combination of podcasts from NPR, the BBC and and a concert by the German heavy metal band Rammstein left me better informed about current events, politics and economics and (thanks to the Rammstein) much more energized for lifting than I would have been had I spent the day in silence. And, the additional hour or so I spent reading Rammstein-related websites while searching for translations and explanations of the lyrics gave me a much better appreciation of their music and an ever-so-slightly improved German vocabulary. Maybe Mr. Tao would disagree and say I should have been doing close-order drill, but I think that was eight and a half hours well spent.

-- WardBenson - 10 Jan 2009

Also, why denigrate "cyber sex" and so-called "virtual relationships?" When geographic or other barriers prevent people from living together or going on "real" dates often, what is wrong with most of the relationship being conducted over the Internet? Indeed, since there is almost by definition less sex in "virtual" relationships than "real" ones, aren't they more likely to be "real" relationships, in the sense that they must be based on meaningful emotional and intellectual connections, than many relationships in the "real" world turn out to be?

-- WardBenson - 10 Jan 2009

People have shopping addictions, too. Why don't we make a law requiring malls to hire more guards to follow women around and then forcefully expel them from the premises after 3 hours? In fact, lets have them all sign in and out every time they enter a retail facility, so we can keep track of their weekly and monthly shopping habits, too. Maybe then we can move on to libraries. We wouldn't want kids spending too much time reading books instead of getting exercise, now would we?

By the way, in case you haven't noticed, this country's GDP is solidly grounded in services provided over the internet and fueled by efficiencies gained through online communication and e-commerce. If not for the internet, this country wouldn't have the GDP you cry we're suddenly going to lose. It's the internet, it's not the plague.

-- KateVershov - 15 Jan 2009


  • I think your colleagues pretty much explained why this essay is problematic. It remains for me to point out that adherence to reasonable rules of information gathering, including critical assessment of sources and a requirement of general evidence for general propositions, would have prevented you from relying so heavily on information of doubtful reliability.

  • But Kate, whose logic is unerring if her enthusiasm for both shopping and capitalism could be productively qualified, has asked a question which goes beyond a problem with facts. If a child spends more time reading than doing anything else, or even than almost everything else put together, have we identified an unfortunate victim of reading addiction? This objection goes to the heart of the matter, and you need, regardless of the support you can marshall for the idea, to consider this independently.


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r6 - 08 Feb 2009 - 21:48:30 - EbenMoglen
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