Kimberly Young, perhaps the world's best known advocate of helping people who spend too much time online, has a way with words. In her first book, Caught in the Net (John Wiley & Sons, 1998), she uses her wordweaving skills to offer pragmatic suggestions to the very real problems hundreds of people are suffering. What these problems are and what to call them remain a contentious issue for many researchers in this area. Young tries to, but ultimately fails, to sidestep this labeling issue, sometimes blaming the Internet for people's interpersonal, social, and psychological problems.
The book's main purpose is to act as a helpful guide to many of the symptoms and behaviors relating to spending too much time online. Young offers clear-cut, sensible suggestions and advice on how to begin to change those behaviors associated with compulsive over-use of the online world.
But the debate surrounding Internet addiction is more complex than Young gives it credit (near the end of the book, in one fleeting section suggesting it is only a question of semantics):
You've got a problem with how you're using the Internet and you need to do something about it. (p. 221).
I think the argument against terming this sort of behavior an "addiction" is more complicated than a matter of semantics. It comes down to the classical Szaszian argument of how society defines dysfunction and the role such definitions play within the greater family and societal context. Consider other technological, interactive innovations over the decades. The telephone. Video games. Call-in radio shows. Teenagers are notorious for spending enormous amounts of time immersed in a wide range of activities. Watching television. Playing video games. Talking for hours on the telephone. Would anyone other than a mental health professional or psychologist seek to classify a teenager's use of the telephone as an "addiction" though? We jokingly refer to "football widows," but nobody has sought to classify watching an abundance of football on television as an addiction (despite the fact that such watching fulfills many of the same criteria Young uses to help define "Internet addiction"). Is the Internet so special, or are some people simply placing blame and making cause-and-effect assumptions while the data is still out?
Caught in the Net is at its best when it acts as a guide to the concerned spouse, parent, or therapist, providing how-to strategies (usually cognitive-behavioral in nature) to deal with issues such as time management, communication within relationships, recognizing triggers, the "voices of denial," and more. These are strategies one can put to work right away to begin to address the problems raised by spending an enormous amount of time online.
Young fumbles the ball in this otherwise-helpful book when she lets her own prejudices about the online world show through. For instance, throughout the book, she seeks to define online social relationships as somehow lacking value, or are at least, on the face of it, possessing lesser value than face-to-face, real-life relationships:
She couldn't just give her [virtual friend] a hug, make her a cup of coffee, run a few errands for her [...] couldn't volunteer to take care of [her child...] couldn't drive her to a battered women's shelter (p. 94).
Yet Webster's New World dictionary doesn't mention physical closeness as a necessary part of the definition of friend:
1. a person whom one knows well and is fond of; intimate associate; close acquaintance [...] 3. a supporter or sympathizer
Thinking maybe I was missing something, I asked five real-life friends of my own about what they thought constituted a friend. Only one provided an answer that involved physical proximity. Friendship is so much more than being there for a person physically. While I admit that is often a part of what we think of as friends, friends have existed for centuries across the miles, across state lines, country lines, even oceans. Some are strong friendships, some are weak, just like the ones which are near to us. To argue that there is some inherent flaw in the online world which prevents two people from truly knowing one another well is to place one's own preconceptions and limitations on the medium (much as a Rorschach).
So when the faceless community beckons with instant companions and the appearance of intimacy, we embrace it not only with all 10 fingers but with full heart and soul. (p. 114).
And why shouldn't we? We are not talking to a computer, after all. We're talking to fellow human beings, with feelings and fears every bit as real and vital as our own. Young suggests that the intimacy found online is simply a hollow shell of the real thing. But again, there is nothing inherent in the definition of intimacy which suggests it cannot be had online:
1. pertaining to the innermost character of a thing; [...] 3. closely acquainted or associated; very familiar (Webster's New World dictionary).
Certainly one can, over time, become "very familiar" with one's online friends and share a sense of very full and very real intimacy with them. This is not simply the appearance of the emotion, but the real thing.
Caught in the Net also muddies the waters with its assault on the English vocabulary, through the overuse and creation of new words relating to the online world. These new words, such as the dubious "mindthrill," the funny "cybershakes," and the phrase, "terminal love" (no, it doesn't refer to love which is dying), among many others, add nothing to the reader's understanding or comprehension of the otherwise serious subject matter covered within the book's pages. Is it helpful to compare the deep grief and feelings of loss experienced when a spouse dies to that of a person who leaves their spouse because of online interactions through the term "cyberwidows?" I think not.
Young also appears hesitant to embrace alternative hypotheses for people's behavior that she has either observed or has had recounted through her interviews with her subjects. On page 105, she suggests
Rather than being single, Jerry [a man who deserted a friendship with Young] quite possibly was married, which would explain the fear of meeting. In fact, he might not have been a "he" at all.
People as online Rorschachs! Young has no idea why Jerry stopped contact with her, but that doesn't stop her from guessing. What if Jerry simply was afraid of meeting her in-person, and was too shy to talk about it? What if online friendships and relationships simply move much more quickly than what we're used to, and this was the end of the friendship as far as Jerry was concerned? The "Whys" you never learn, as Young entitles this section of the chapter, are simply life's truisms -- most people never learn the real reasons relationships fail or friendships fade. They just do. Suggesting that the online world is significantly different than real-life is based not upon evidence, per se', but simply upon conjecture.
And this is the real problem with the tone of the book. Young has an unspoken agenda which she only alludes to indirectly,
[The Internet] has an addictive potential with harmful harmful consequences that, left undetected and unchecked, could silently run rampant in our schools, our universities, our offices, our libraries, and our homes. (p. 11).
According to Young's view, apparently, the Internet is something "less than" real-life, and therefore has negative, addictive qualities we simply don't place on other, real-life activities with a similar degree of seriousness. Talking on the telephone, one can while away hours at a time and never realize it. Does the telephone add or take-away from the value of that long-distance friendship or relationship? Does the Internet do anything more than this?
Throughout the book, the author refers to people's online personas as "fantasies" and the online world as some sort of "fantasyland" (e.g., a land filled with images from our imagination). But for many people, a person's online persona is no different from the various roles a person will put on throughout the day, at work, at home, with one's same-gender friends, etc. There is no inherent fantasy role-playing which goes on when a person logs on. That is simply some people's choice.
Young appears disdainful of the free-wheeling, anything-goes Wild-West world of the Internet. She speaks of the lack of censorship online with a certain amount of resignated whistfulness that one hears when someone is wishing for the "good old days." Her discussions and descriptions of the real-world often seem idealized, while her descriptions of the subjects who answered her survey are negative, and always seem to emphasize the downside of their online interactions. Even when the apparent outcomes of these interactions are positive, Young puts a negative spin on them. After describing a priest who finds release by being able to speak his mind without fear of religious persecution, Young writes:
Those who share his views comfort the priest, and those who challenge him allow him an opportunity to debate these issues without ever having to reveal his vocation and true identity.
It's a bit like talk radio. You call up and lambast the politicians you most detest, with strong arguments and witty insults, then five minutes later another caller from across the country calls in to agree with you. (p. 26).
Hardly an attractive comparison.
The description of Janice's experience is typical (pp. 99-101). While describing a perfectly healthy and legitimate way of meeting potential mates, Young suggests that Janice was setting herself up for failure because she was creating idealized versions of these men in her mind. Yet Janice's experiences are little different than when people scan their local personal ads to set up first dates or meetings with individuals. The person builds up the date in their mind and more often than not, the date simply can never live up to the idealized version. Young would have us believe this is unique to the online world, and one more example of its "faceless community."
This disdain is also seen in her views about online support groups, where "you're not apt to find much structure or consistency (p. 229)." I'm not aware of very much structure or consistency for any real-life mutual self-help support group, either. It varies from group to group, region to region, and type to type. The very definition of mutual self-help support groups is that there is no professional leader. That does not, however, mean such unstructured groups do not help people. There is a large body of evidence which suggests that in fact, they do. It is not difficult to believe that online support groups offer similar types of beneficial effects to their members.
But the case against the online world is never seriously made. Young's research, on which this book is based, is anecdotal and survey data, based upon people who already thought there was something wrong with themselves or their lives. It is therefore not all that surprising Young has found so much to write about. Young's research is not typically the kind of data researchers in psychology pride themselves on. Nor does Young's reliance on press releases, newspaper articles, and magazine articles as "notes" to support her viewpoints seem all that compelling. In one telling example, Young quotes USA Today discussing the results of a survey conducted in 1996 about the beliefs of educators about the usefulness of the Internet in helping "improve classroom performance." This is as about as murky as you can get in terms of what this data actually means. The data is 2 years old, the survey only questioned educators' beliefs (which may have been influenced by their own ignorance of the Internet at the time), and "improve classroom performance" is such an open-ended phrase that it could mean or imply nearly anything. This data was used to support the assertion that children don't benefit from Internet access in schools.
But it does make for good reading. Caught in the Net is, in the end, a useful reference mainly for consumers to read and learn how to guard against unhealthy behavior (which can be more generally applied to nearly any behavior carried to an extreme). It also offers down-to-earth, step-by-step instructions on how to learn new skills to help deal with many of the problems associated with spending a great deal of time online. If you think you spend too much time online, or that the spending of time online is causing you or your family problems, this is a book you should buy. And if you're afraid someone close to you has been "caught in the net," this is a book you should buy for them. Make no doubt about it, regardless of whether "Internet addiction" is real or not, the effects of spending an enormous amount of time online without controls and moderation are usually negative and often destructive. Young shows you how you can begin to take back control of your life.
I can't help but wonder, though, how much longer until we hear the phrase, "If you think you're addicted to the Internet, then you probably are." A self-fulfilling prophecy if I've ever heard one.