Rhodri Marsden: This is as absurd as an addiction to electricity

We're talking about the internet here, which is increasingly thought of as an essential utility

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It's strange how certain cultural activities are seen as worthwhile but others are seen as harmful. No one will ever criticise you for having your nose permanently buried in a book, but stare at a laptop screen for too long and you'll be accused of being an addict.

While it's evidently true that the internet facilitates activities that can become damaging – excessive use of pornography, gambling or online gaming, for example – the term "internet addiction disorder" (IAD) is unhelpful, implying that persistent use of a device with a broadband connection carries some sort of health risk.

In her reaction to this study, psychiatrist Henrietta Bowden-Jones acknowledges that online gaming is what she's particularly worried about – but that's not a distinction made apparent in the study itself, which describes IAD as "an individual's ability to control his or her internet use".

We're talking about the internet here – a network of computers that's increasingly thought of as an essential utility. It's unsurprising that this study has emerged from China, where authorities believe many millions of adolescents are suffering from IAD, where many of them are sent to boot camps to help them to recover, and where electroshock therapy was outlawed only in 2009.

Yesterday's discovery of abnormalities in MRI scans seems almost designed to fuel concern that children's brains are somehow being damaged by spending evenings on Facebook, perpetuating the fallacy that all offline interactions are automatically more valid and wholesome than all online ones.

Yes, those who gamble away their family's finances playing online poker or neglect their children while playing FarmVille need to seek help. But as computing and the internet become more ubiquitous over the coming decades and offline and online worlds blur, the very notion of being addicted to digital connectivity will seem as absurd and laughable as being addicted to electricity.

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