Imagine a child who’s on her computer all day long because she’s playing World of Warcraft. Imagine another who is talking with friends and looking at photos on Facebook. Imagine a third relentless in his pursuit of hi-def porn videos. And imagine a fourth — this will be hard, I know — who is learning how to code and has found a great many like-minded people in the coding subreddit. Taken together these kids make it clear why there’s no such thing as internet addiction.
“But they’re online all the time and we can’t get them to interact with real human beings!” their parents shout, in unison. “They’re addicted to screens!” To which the proper answer is, Well, some of them are interacting with real human beings, for better or worse, and — more important — none of them is addicted to screens. They’re addicted to certain experiences that they are getting access to via their computers. That is not at all the same thing.
Indeed, no one has ever been addicted to screens, or even addicted to the internet. Neither screens as such nor the internet as such have the power to enrapture people. Now, some might reply that this is a frivolous response, that such language is an easily-understood shorthand. But I would counter that it’s a highly misleading shorthand, because it teaches us to conflate extremely different experiences, to place them under a single umbrella, which is exactly where they don’t belong. Each of the four children I described above is moved by very different interests; and indeed, it would be easy to write more detailed stories for each of them that would show their behavior to be, in particular contexts, either more or less culpable or worrisome than my current bare-bones narration makes them sound.
So my suggestion would be this: whenever you hear that someone is suffering from “internet addiction,” just ask what, precisely, is it on the internet that he or she is addicted to. And get them to define addiction while you’re at it. And treat the whole exchange as the beginning of a conversation about a person, not a definitive diagnosis.