The medical world seems to be split in two over whether internet addiction really exists. Certainly we have heard stories of people becoming so wrapped up in online gaming they prefer virtual worlds to their own reality. It was only last week that a couple in South Korea were arrested for starving their daughter to death. The couple neglected their child for up to 12 hours a day while they were playing an online fantasy game in internet cafes.
Back in 2007 the publication Advances in Psychiatric Treatment published a study on the matter and concluded that 5-10 percent of the 46.6 million internet users may be addicts. In a similar study it was estimated that 14 percent of the Americans with internet access found it difficult to stop using the web for more than a couple of days.
Online Gamers Anonymous is an organisation which offers help to those who can’t seem to ween themselves off virtual gaming worlds. The charity uses a twelve step programme which works in a similar way to recovery programmes used for drugs and alcohol.
David Smallwood is the addiction treatment programme manager at The Priory London and believes that the better someone gets at playing a game the more they can progress and ultimately become more important, increasing the appeal even further. To continue experiencing this feeling of a new and elevated status they have to continue playing in order to get better at the game.
Smallwood believes that an addiction is classified as being “any substance or process that is continued despite increasingly negative consequences” . However he doesn’t blame the online games but the people that are addicted. Explaining that if you are an addict you would become addicted to something at some point no matter what it was.
Many people hold the software companies that develop these games partly responsible. They have been accused of making the games deliberately addictive. In the same way that fruit machines are programmed to pay out at certain intervals, these games give rewards at particular points to keep the gamer engaged.
To keep the issue under control it has been suggested that gaming companies hire phycologists to help them design the right intermittent reinforcement schedule, but currently there is a lack of effort from these companies to put out warnings.