Mary Manjikian writes: Whenever I talk about the politics of internet addiction in an American setting, a funny thing happens. I put up the usual 9-question quiz which asks the audience to consider their responses to questions like:
- I sometimes lie to others about the amount of time I spend online.
- If I cannot get online, sometimes I feel irritable or out of sorts
- I would rather spend time online than with people whom I have close relationships with.
The Americans invariably grin, and poke each other and make the same jokes, over and over. ‘I’m an internet addict,’ they say, ‘and so is my wife and so are my kids.’
Culturally, Americans (and Europeans, I would venture) tend not to fear the internet or new technologies. We’re dependent on that technology and also comfortable in that dependence.
This reaction from the audience allows me then to segue into the real reason for my presentation. How is it then, I ask them, that the Americans and the Chinese (and the Taiwanese and those from Singapore and Korea) feel so differently about the threat of internet addiction? Some figures from China suggest that up to twenty percent of young people are dangerously dependent on the internet. It is seen as presenting a danger to educational achievement, family unity and psychological health. American statistics, in contrast, show that only four percent of us are addicted to the internet, and these are usually individuals with underlying or comorbid conditions, including depression or other addictions. In China, the fear of internet addiction is real and pervasive and the disease is not considered to be a joke. Instead, government resources are aimed at studying the phenomenon, establishing treatment centers and protocols, and passing legislation which allows for a variety of regimes to monitor people’s internet use – including instituting curfews at universities, installing technologies to lock out gamers after a specified number of hours, and setting up systems for monitoring the users at internet cafes.
Yet most Americans – and particularly the reporters at Wired Magazine, as well as officials at nongovernmental organizations concerned with internet democracy — assume that China ‘invented’ internet addiction as a ruse, which was ultimately aimed at tightening restrictions on internet users. The disease China really wishes to combat, according to many, is not internet addiction but rather internet use, particularly if it leads to democracy or anti-state activity. When I began my own research, I assume that China’s focus on internet addiction was merely a new variant of the Soviet political psychiatry first described by Peter Reddaway and Sydney Bloch back in the 1970’s. In those days, Soviet psychiatrists invented new diseases and then applied the labels to dissidents, since imprisoning them was difficult but hospitalizing them was easy.
The puzzle presented by internet addiction figures and regimes worldwide today shows the importance of a program in medical humanities, which uniquely addresses the intersection between disease and politics. The internet addiction puzzle shows how politics can affect how a disease is labelled, how it is diagnosed (or the label is applied) and how it is treated and by whom. Addiction in particular is a politicized concept and one that is full of contradictions that are difficult to resolve, even in one society. Parsing the language of addicition in a multinational context thus presents a particularly complex conundrum, but it is one which medical humanities scholars are uniquely poised to undertake.
You can read more about the politics of internet addiction in Mary Manjikian’s Threat Talk: Comparative Politics of Internet Addiction (Ashgate: 2012).