Do We Need Rehab Programs for Internet Addiction?


Is internet use an addiction worthy of being classified with drugs, alcohol, sex or gambling?

One hospital in Pennsylvania thinks so. Starting next Monday, the Behavioral Health Services at Bradford Regional Medical Center will be offering a 10-day rehab program to treat Internet addiction.

We spoke to Jon Grant, MD, JD, MPH, professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago, about whether or not this is the next frontier of addiction treatment. Grant heads the Center of Excellence in Gambling Research, and is an expert in addictive and compulsive disorders. He raised some interesting questions to be examined when assessing whether spending hour after hour online is the problem, or a symptom of another disorder:

Internet use for many young people worldwide has garnered a lot of attention, particularly when the use becomes problematic. We see many young people who spend hours of non-essential time on the Internet leading to social isolation and dysfunction (giving up friends, not going to school, etc.). I think many would agree that internet use for many people can clearly become problematic.

Jon Grant, MD, JD, MPH

Having said that, many questions still remain.

  1. Is the internet itself a problem or is it just a delivery system? I mean, is spending money, gambling, pornography the real issues in many cases and the Internet is just the way people access these? Or is the internet itself resulting in problematic use?

    The American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 did not include internet addiction in the manual as a disorder. It did however include “internet gaming disorder” as a “condition for further study.” They were specifically mentioning internet gaming not just all internet use, as gaming is unique to the internet. And if pornography or gambling are the real reasons someone is using the internet, then they would be better characterized as having a problem with sex or gambling.

  2. Is problematic internet use best conceptualized as an addiction? Without more scientific information, this may be premature.

    Does it share some biology with substance addictions? This is not yet known. Would it be better thought of as a compulsive habit? Or something else? There is simply not enough scientific evidence yet to make this determination.

  3. What do we do about it? There is very little scientific evidence examining effective treatments.

    In part this is related to #2 above. If you simply see it as an addiction you may try one approach but there could be a different treatment approach that is more effective.

    We don’t yet know the best way to treat it. Does someone need an inpatient facility or could they do fine seeing a therapist once per week? Even if both may work, who should try one approach versus another?

There are yet no clear answers to these issues.

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