Facebook addiction: there is moderation

A little over a month ago, Ross Gardiner posted the video shown below, addressing his thoughts on Facebook. It’s well worth a watch if you’re a fairly heavy user of Facebook and wonder about whether it’s a good use of time. That said, the video does take the well-worn path of abstinence, which is overkill for the large majority who use Facebook a few times per week.

I’m endlessly amused at the black and white approach to anything like this: you’re either a heavy user or you don’t use at all. It’s a shame that approach misses out the huge majority that fall squarely in the middle. Anyway, if you worry about your level of Facebook time, have a watch of this:

Thanks to a Facebook friend, Anna, for the link.

World of Warcraft: the ‘crack’ myth

firemage-sept2009Before I question some of the hyperbole floating around the mainstream media over the ‘World of Warcraft is like crack’ story, I have to make a disclosure. I do play World of Warcraft and am in fact a Level 80 Fire Mage. Snigger all you want, but there’s dozens, if not hundreds of you reading this that play WoW too, and you love it. More on that later.

The latest iteration of the ‘WoW as Crack’ story, finally picked up by the mainstream Australian media, is that a UK-based psychiatrist is asking WoW’s creator Blizzard Software to cough up some money to assist counsellors who want to get to know the game better. The theory is, once they understand what it is they’re dealing with, they can tailor interventions better. As a health professional myself, it actually makes a lot of sense. Without knowing the environment a person with a problematic behaviour interacts with, it’s difficult to fathom their motivations or triggers for what they are doing. Blizzard Software, not surprisingly, haven’t made a comment on the issue. They’re not about to trumpet the need for counselors to be embedded within their game, even though there have been some significant individual examples pop up here and there.

Some would argue Blizzard, or any game creator, aren’t under any obligation to assist the proportion of their clientele who play at harmful levels. Others will claim there’s as much a duty of care as say a tobacco company may have to its customers. The reality probably sits somewhere in the middle. It wouldn’t hurt Blizzard to fork out a few thousand dollars to assist health professionals trying to get their head around why a teenager or adult wants to spend 16 hours a day undertaking raids or quests. As a corporate citizen it’d give Blizzard some credibility and let them influence the agenda of how big the issue really is. As a proportion of its more than 11 million users who pay US$12.99 per month, truly addicted users would only make up a tiny percentage. Add to that those who compulsively play (there’s a difference) and you have a bigger population but still far from the majority. There’s no doubt there are people whose lives are seriously damaged by addiction to massive multiplayer games – it’s just that they’re well and truly outnumbered by those who’ve found a whole new social outlet or those exploring the learning opportunities.

Which brings me back to those of you who play WoW: next time you log in, type “/played” in your chat window and be dismayed or amazed at how many days you’ve been a Troll Shaman. I put in around 25 days of time per year in WoW, which probably makes me borderline compulsive. That said, I’ve substituted 2-3 hours per day of Australian Idol and Rove for an activity that requires strategy, socialisation and hand/eye coordination. How is that undesirable behaviour?

The Multiplicities of Internet Addiction – a book review

This book review appeared yesterday over on Metaverse Health, but given the book’s Australian author and it’s broad examination of online behaviour, I thought it was worth re-posting it here.

Johnson – The Multiplicities of Internet 2a1

Nicola Johnson from the University of Wollongong in Australia, recently released a book titled The Multiplicities of Internet Addiction – The Misrecognition of Leisure and Learning. It’s an engaging read, not least for the very objective look it takes at the concepts of internet addiction and framing the issue within the realities of a net-connected society that has changed immensely in the past twenty years or so.

Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice is the frame for the qualitative study of eight New Zealander teenagers and the illumination it provided on the perception of technology use amongst those who’ve know no different (digital insiders), those who haven’t (digital newcomers) and those who are plain not interested (digital outsiders). Additionally, there’s some fascinating discussion on how expertise is being developed by digital insiders and how this expertise is at best partially gained from the traditional educational institutions in place at present.

It’s the elaboration of the experiences of these eight teens that allow Johnson to weave in a great deal of the substantive research that’s occurred into the nature of addiction in regard to online activity. There’s no assertion of internet addiction as non-entity, just a much smaller subset of use than usually claimed. As contributing writer Feldspar Epstein has written previously in relation to heavy use of virtual worlds by people with disabilities:

Can you imagine telling someone with no legs to forsake their wheelchair? How about someone with a pain disorder? Are you going to tell people with crippling mental disorders that they are not allowed to take drugs to normalize and enable them? Are you going to tell deaf people they can’t use Teletype in place of the telephone?

Each of these technological advances were radical in their time; some of them were seen as being destructive, to society or to the individual. It’s hard to imagine any of these people being denied their enabling technologies in today’s first world society (one hopes). I hope to live in a future where my enabling computer habits are accepted.

Johnson’s assertions based on a thorough exploration of the literature, reveal a similar conclusion: internet addiction does exist, but when the preconceptions of digital newcomers and digital outsiders are removed from the equation, the prevalence of internet addiction seems pretty limited indeed. As Johnson concludes:

Digital outsiders (and some digital newcomers) find it unfathomable to understand the preoccupation that digital insiders have with their online lives. Because it is not what they did in times gone by, they find it difficult to understand the value, worth and social capital received by avid users in what appears to be an unhealthy obsession. As I have argued, these practices are not only misrecognized as obessions or addictions, but they are misunderstood.

This book’s research base means it’s more likely to be consumed and digested by those who are doing research or study in the area themselves. Which is a shame, as the discussion deserves wider recognition and debate. Work like this balances out some of the excesses on the mainstream media side of the equation. It’s only a lack of dissemination of this perspective that will ensure the sensationalism camp prevails for some time to come.

You can purchase this book from our online bookstore, Amazon direct or direct from the publisher.

The rise and rise of the Game Widow

(From our sister site, Metaverse Health)

This article in the Canadian publication, the London Free Press, describes in detail a couple of case studies of gaming addicts. The case studies themselves paint a fairly standard picture of someone with a compulsion for intensive gaming, though some effort has been made to provide balanced coverage of the issue.

The premise of the article is the establishment of a support service for gaming addicts in London, Ontario – apparently the first such group in Canada. What caught my eye was that the wife of one of the addicts described in the article, Wendy Kays, has written a book called Game Widow. (we’ll hopefully be reviewing the book soon).

The term ‘game widow’ has been around for years and it’s increasingly resonating with the broader public. It further emphasises the need for more research in the area as well as a vigilance toward not typecasting all gamers as addicts. Terms like ‘game widow’ also accentuate the gender divide in some gaming genres. There are surely ‘game widowers’ out there but they’re likely to be in a distinct minority.

One final comment to the author of the article – online roleplaying did not begin with Everquest in 1999.

What looks like addiction, but is not – Virtual Addiction, Part 3

I spend hours with my computer. It is my favorite tool. I spend time in and out of virtual worlds; I spend time on and off the Internet, surfing with my browser. I communicate, I work, I play. From the sheer amount of time spent with my machine during the day, according to some measures, it would be correct to say that I am addicted to the behaviour of using my computer. I do not, however, consider this to be an addiction.

Several people within my experience also spend a great deal of time with their computers. Interestingly, the particular people I am thinking of were also at one time thought to be drug addicts. Each of these people suffers from either a physical pain disorder, or from a chemical mental disorder. The drugs they take assist their functioning, above and beyond the side effects they cause. I do not consider any of these people to be addicts, either, with regards to drug use or computer use.

Smoking - one of the legal addictions.

Why is this not addiction?

The most important signs of addiction, and indeed the ones that cry out for treatment, are loss of control regarding the addiction and destructive behaviors of and surrounding the addiction. Neither I nor my friends exhibit these signs in our computer usage nor drug usage; therefore, this behavior is not an addiction, by definition.

Why does it look like addiction?

One of the primary signs attributed to addictions of computer usage is time spent engaging in the behavior. This sign may help with the diagnosis of an addiction, but alone cannot be used to make the diagnosis.

Consider how many hours a day the average person spends at work. Perhaps eight hours all up, divided into an hour for lunch, a couple of hours for meetings and other communications, and the rest for the actual work they do. Then consider that person gets home (two hours for travel), eats (two hours for eating at home), and watches TV or reads (four hours). This accounts for sixteen hours of the day, roughly.

Imagine, then, if all of this could be accomplished from their computer at home. Suddenly, rather than seeing a person spending sixteen hours a day in mindless clicking, there is someone working, communicating, gathering news and information and finding entertainment using the same tool.

Another sign often taken alone and out of context is a lack of face-to-face communication on behalf of a person who uses computers.

There are many different scenarios in which face-to-face communication is not applicable, but for example, consider a person with a physical disability in which face-to-face communication is difficult to achieve. For someone with limited mobility or large amounts of pain, getting out of the house may range from impractical to impossible. Consider sufferers of social anxieties, or autistic folk, who are barely able to communicate face-to-face, but whom are liberated by the digital space.

Is quality of life being gained or lost?

Where there is a gain in quality of life which exceeds the downsides to the behavior, there is unlikely to be an addictive problem. With drugs for pain relief, it has been found that it’s very rare for folks who require the drug for pain relief to exhibit loss of control or destructive behaviors concerning the drug, even though they have a physical dependence on it. There may be withdrawal symptoms and side effects, but overall the quality of life increase for these folks. Being able to take care of themselves, their homes, their families, and having enjoyment in life far outweighs the problems in most cases.

Technology is enabling.

Can you imagine telling someone with no legs to forsake their wheelchair? How about someone with a pain disorder? Are you going to tell people with crippling mental disorders that they are not allowed to take drugs to normalize and enable them? Are you going to tell deaf people they can’t use Teletype in place of the telephone?

Each of these technological advances were radical in their time; some of them were seen as being destructive, to society or to the individual. It’s hard to imagine any of these people being denied their enabling technologies in today’s first world society (one hopes). I hope to live in a future where my enabling computer habits are accepted.

What harm is being done, to whom, if I take care of myself, my family, my house, my dog, my finances and my business, while still spending many hours a day at my desk at home?

On Being a Virtual World Whore – Virtual Addiction, Part 2

There’s been a great deal of debate of whether “Internet Addiction” and its close cousin, “Virtual World Addiction”, should be classified as disorders separate from other behavioral addictions. Psychiatrist Ivan Goldberg reputedly borrowed the criteria for substance use and impulse-control disorders from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), and jokingly created the criteria for Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) way back in 1995. Since then the debate has raged wildly – can these two addictions be meaningfully separated out and classified, or is there little real reason for doing so?

Smoking - one of the legal addictions.

Internet and Virtual World Addiction: what are the specifics?

Internet addiction, and virtual world addiction (by association), seems to revolve around five basic sub-types: gambling, sexual preoccupation, messaging and/or chatting, online gaming and information gathering.

None of these are new concepts. As previously discussed, the Internet and the virtual world are mediums. The problem is with the individual’s pathological need to carry out the activity, not with the medium that provides the means for that activity.  Each of the five sub-types mentioned can be performed using other mediums and indeed have been for some time.

Nonetheless, there is a definite appeal to engaging in these activities online. The internet and virtual worlds provide high levels of convenience. It is much easier and quicker to gamble from home, using electronic funds, than to be physically present or to accomplish the task over the phone. If you are looking to be secretive about your behavior, it’s easiest to hide your actions online – no need to hide physical evidence like books or magazines.

Still, this does not constitute sufficient reason to separate out these addictions from other behavioural issues.

What are the withdrawal symptoms of Internet and Virtual World Addiction?

Symptoms include: loneliness, boredom, anger, irritability, frustration, emotional “vacancy” or numbness, disconnectedness, loss, moodiness, depression and restlessness. Interestingly, these symptoms sound suspiciously like those suffered by people cut off from the rest of society. Internet users asked to give up their internet usage reported that they felt “left out of the loop” – an understandable reaction given how many people interact with each other online rather than face-to-face or over the phone.

Of course, these symptoms are not restricted to folks cut off from society – these apply to other behavioural addictions. Internet and Virtual World addictions do not have symptom lists that specifically separate them from other behavioral addictions.

What are the consequences of being addicted to the Internet and Virtual Worlds?

Having an addiction implies that one relationship or activity has become all-important, other relationship or activities are ignored or given a minimum amount of attention. As with any other addiction, this often includes a reduction in time spent at work (or complete absence), resulting in loss of employment, financial loss and hardship and less time spent maintaining or creating relationships. This leads to existing relationships breaking down, new relationships not created through other mediums, a more secretive approach to relationships (where the true nature of the addiction is hidden from other parties) and reducing relationship quality, Other obligations and chores are neglected, sometimes to the extent that a health risk exists.

For humans as social and physical animals, the most significant of these consequences after health health concrens, is the loss of close relationships with other people, particularly family relationships. Humans require some amount of physical contact to remain healthy – the portion of a relationship that can be experienced online is no less real when experienced over a distance instead of face-to-face. Nonetheless, online relationships will never be able to fully replace relationships where physical contact is possible.

Who gets addicted to the Internet, or to Virtual Worlds?

Intriguingly, those people who suffer from this addiction may have suffered from symptoms very similar to the symptoms for this affliction prior to becoming addicted: depression, guilt, and anxiety. There are often other symptoms (dysphoric mood, feelings of helplessness, interpersonal distress, low self-esteem) and other issues (abandonment, shame, fear) that presage this type of addiction. It’s surprising how common it is for people with these underlying conditions to become addicts; up to 86% of study subjects also exhibit other diagnosable mental health disorders.

Two of the factors that are not necessarily indicators for who will become addicted are age and social capacity, even though stereotypically socially awkward or inept youths are seen as the main sufferers. Daniel Loton of the Victoria University in Australia has shown that what he terms “problem play” (as relates to gaming in virtual worlds) is not restricted to those people who have little capacity for socialization. Low self-esteem is however a good predictor of whether someone will become an addict, according to the study.

Treatment of addiction in behavioural cases?

A diagnosis is most useful where it can be used to treat an affliction. Most behavioral addictions respond well to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Indeed, internet and virtual world addiction cases reportedly respond well to CBT. Thus, there would seem to be little reason to separate out internet and virtual world addiction solely on the basis of needing a treatment specific to the new diagnosis.

In conclusion, there seems to be no need for the distinct and separate classifications of internet and virtual world addiction. These terms merely clump together several different behavioural addictions with the same delivery method. It’s like saying that snorters and injectors of an addictive drug should get a different diagnosis. Even if there are cases where the presentation, withdrawal symptoms or consequences are different, the therapy used to treat the different cases remains the same. Unnecessarily differentiating labels seems to do no more than confuse more than they contribute.

In the third and final article of this series, we will look at behaviour that seems like addictive behavior, but isn’t all that it seems to be on the surface.

Are you a Virtual World Whore? Virtual Addiction, Part 1

Do you crave the fun, excitement, and pleasure of virtual worlds to the detriment of the rest of your life? Would you do anything, give anything, just to be able to spend another couple of uninterrupted hours in a virtual space, Multi-User Virtual Environment (MUVE) or gaming environment?

Smoking - one of the legal addictions.

You have a problem. You are a virtual world addict.

What does it mean to be “addicted”?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) uses the term “dependency”. The upcoming DSM-V will use the term “addiction” once again to describe the condition, since “dependency” has other connotations that confuse the issue. “Addiction” is the term used by many physicians and most lay people.

Under the DSM-IV, “substance dependency”, the condition from which the diagnostic criteria for behavioural conditions was extrapolated, is paraphrased as follows:

  1. The substance is required for normal functioning, and withdrawal, a physical and psychological reaction, occurs when the substance is suddenly withdrawn. Additionally, any adverse consequences, be they physical, psychosocial, financial, etc, are endured for the sake of getting and taking the substance.
  2. The substance initially causes pleasure, euphoria and/or feelings of well-being, though this experience diminishes in intensity over time, so that more of the substance must be taken in to experience the same effect. This is known as tolerance.
  3. Any substance in which a person indulges in uncontrollably is addictive.
  4. A “reward circuit” is set up by substance dependency, in the brain; that is, taking the substance leads to a reward, and the brain undergoes a neuro-plastic change, so that the brain is then primed to desire the reward again.

What does it mean to have a behavioural addiction?

Being addicted to a particular behaviour bears a strong resemblance to substance dependency or addiction. The difference is the behaviour is carried out, in place of a substance being taken. The following items hold true:

  1. The behaviour needs to be carried out to maintain normal functioning, and withdrawal occurs if it is not.
  2. The behaviour induces pleasure; tolerance is built up over time, so that the behaviour must be carried out more or more often in order to achieve the same level of pleasure.
  3. Any behaviour in which a person indulges in uncontrollably is addictive.
  4. Changes in the brain occur in response to the repeated pleasure and withdrawal pattern.

“It's a compulsive behavior, and it doesn't matter if it's Everquest, Second Life, World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, Internet porn or gambling.

How is “Internet” addiction different, new, or special? (For “Internet”, read browsing, email, Instant Messaging, online porn, online gaming, and participating in MUVEs).

Short answer: very little. The specifics of the type of pleasure engendered, the type of withdrawal experienced, and the consequences of enacting the behavior differ from other addictions as other addictions differ from each other – otherwise there would be no point in having a different classification for each. The basics, though, are identical to the basics for all behavioral addictions.

“It’s a compulsive behavior, and it doesn’t matter if it’s Everquest, Second Life, World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, Internet porn or gambling,” states Tateru Nino. The sufferer “could not find balance.”

The essential problem seems to be that people mistake the medium for the message. When they hear that folks are “addicted to the Internet”, they blame the Internet, the medium, for the problem, whereas the Internet is simply provides a new source of behaviors for people who would have had behavioral addictions anyway. By extension, it’s not the fault of virtual worlds that people become virtual world addicts.

In the next article, On Being a Virtual World Whore – Virtual Addition, Part 2, we investigate the ins and outs of suffering from virtual world addiction: what are the specific classifications for this addiction, what are the withdrawal symptoms, and what are the consequences?

Gamers not social rejects: Australian study

I missed the announcement of this research a couple of weeks back but thought it was worth passing on the full announcement from Victoria University:

The video gamer stereotype, which says gamers are lonely nerds with low self-esteem, who are addicted to gaming because they are unable to socialise, has been contradicted by research by Victoria University Honours graduate Dan Loton.

In his Psychology Honours thesis, Loton explored the notion of video game addiction, and whether excessive gaming is related to social skills and self-esteem.

He said: “There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence about gaming addiction. Online forums abound with tales of people who can’t get off the computer. But from a clinical point of view, an addiction is a mental illness with very serious consequences. In this context, we need to ask whether gaming is responsible for causing people’s lives to fall apart in the same way we see with gambling, alcohol or drug addiction.”

For the study, Loton developed an online questionnaire that included scales to measure social skills and self-esteem. There was also the Problem Video Game Playing Scale (PVP) used to determine ‘problematic and dependence forming electronic game play’.

He said: “The characteristics that might define a ‘problem gamer’ would be things like an intrusive preoccupation with gaming, where the amount of time they spend playing is affecting their work, sleep, and close relationships; and they want to stop playing games but can’t.”

The gaming community responded well to Loton’s questionnaire and he was able to analyse 621 completed surveys. Around 15 percent of respondents were identified as ‘problem gamers’ who spent more than 50 hours a week playing games.

He said: “We found that those who played Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs), such as ‘World of Warcraft’, which currently has over 10 million fee-paying monthly subscribers, were more likely to exhibit problematic game play. But, what is important to note is that even ‘problem gamers’ did not exhibit significant signs of poor social skills or low self-esteem. Only one percent of those identified as ‘problem gamers’, appeared to have poor social skills, specifically shyness.”

“We also looked at whether problematic play is impelled by social difficulties, by using a multiple regression analysis to see if high scores on the social skills and self esteem scales could predict problematic playing scores. Our findings strongly suggest that gaming doesn’t cause social problems, and social problems are not driving people to gaming.”

The findings contradict the widely reported statements made last year by the American Medical Association (AMA), which labelled MMORPG gamers as “somewhat marginalized socially, perhaps experiencing high levels of emotional loneliness and/or difficulty with real life social interactions”.

Citing concerns “about the behavioural, health and societal effects of video game overuse” the AMA is likely to consider adding ‘video game addiction’ to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders at its next review in 2012.

Loton said such views may have been prejudiced by outdated stereotypes.

He said: “I think it’s an evolution of social and cultural stereotypes that suggest only nerds and geeks play computer games. The reality is that nowadays everyone is playing video games. A 2007 report by Bond University found that in Australia online gaming is more popular than downloading music and internet shopping.”

Dan Loton is an Ethics Officer with VU’s Office of Research, at Footscray Park Campus.

What are your thoughts? My perception has been that there’s been a steady ‘mainstreaming’ of game play, including virtual worlds – but given my 20+ years of geekiness I’m not best placed to comment 😉

A year ago on The Metaverse Journal

We interviewed in-world counsellors Transcend and Tranquil Wellman.

Ad Farms, ABC Valentines and Addiction Survey

Three mini stories in one today:

1. Ad farms are the target of the latest Linden Lab crackdown. There’s likely to be widespread praise for this move.

2. Second Life’s ABC Island is having a Valentine’s Day event:

“Bring your sweetheart or come and make new friends, or both! Celebrate Valentine’s Day (Thurs 14 Feb TODAY!) at ABC Island at 8pm AEDT on the ABC Park ice rink, near the Sandbox, or roller skate around the ‘ABC logo’ path. Join the Valentine Heart Hunt! Free skates available, or bring your own trick skates”.


3. We received this short missive this afternoon:

“I’m doing research on second life addiciton, it would be a great help if people would take a survey I set up


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