Crazy Talk

Beyond the Limits of Online News

IMG_6834.JPG, by fabola,with Creative Commons licenceA funny thing happened on the way to the press room last week. An editorial published in the American Journal of Psychiatry characterising Internet addiction as a compulsive-impulsive spectrum disorder skipped out into cyberspace and became a warning that online gaming, texting or even email could – and quite possibly would – send you mad. Damn those slapdash bloggers, you might think, they’re giving us all a bad name.

But, no, the scare-mongers were online representatives of the traditional news media. The bloggers got it right.

So what was all the fuss about? Much of the problem seems to be that the editorial suggested a lot more than it could deliver for keyword happy journalists. Jerald Block argued that specific examples of excessive Internet use could be classified as “disorders” and were worthy of inclusion in DSM-V, the yet to be published update of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders used by psychiatrists around the world.

To put this in its proper perspective, the new manual isn’t likely to be published for a long while yet, and only after an exhausting process of consultation within the profession and with the general public. Hence the importance of the editorial – it was a small part of a long process that will involve a great deal of careful thought.

two princes, spin doctors, by [auro], with Creative Commons licenceMuch of Dr Block’s focus was actually on the very public issue of Internet addiction in South Korea and China – which has gained coverage around the world – with the United States used as comparison because it boasts far fewer Internet cafes and is likely to have internalised the problem more, kept it private and largely out of reach. But he also laid out a very clear case for diagnosing symptoms that arose from “excessive gaming, sexual preoccupations, and e-mail/text messaging”. And that’s where the trouble began.

Admittedly, not all of the traditional media twisted the story. The New Scientist was amongst those that reported the importance of the diagnostic criteria both in print and on its website. And London’s Daily Mail pushed the importance of recognising the problem into its lede, with the diagnostic criteria quickly following. The Observer even bothered to interview Dr Block, but ruined its case for sophisticated journalism by opening with “Tense? Angry? Can’t get online? Internet addiction is now a serious public health issue”, more reminiscent of an advertising gimmick than professional coverage.

From there it was pretty much downhill, even for reputable sites. Smh.com, the online presence of the Sydney Morning Herald and Australia’s most popular news site, ran a headline that declared “Excessive texting may signal mental illness”. Not to be outdone, the West Australian ran with “text messaging a sign of mental illness”, much more certain about the situation that its east-coast counterpart. In Russia, Pravda expanded on the text angle, claiming “if you text, write e-mails too much during the day it’s high time to see a doctor.”

Texting Amy, arguing Phoebe . . . by Mrlerone, with Creative Commons licenceOkay, so many of you will remember Pravda as the Soviet Union’s propaganda rag, and hardly a reliable news source. But reliability is often in the eye of the beholder, and America has its equivalent, though always unofficially so. Yes, I mean the Fox Network. Surprisingly sophisticated in its approach, FoxNews.com republished an article from its Australian arm that reported an interview with Dr Block on the dangers of excessive texting.

What is it with Australians and texting?

But that’s not the main point – this is. Still on texts and emails, but a day later, the Fox23 news site from Albany in New York published an interview with ‘psychotherapist’ Kim Shirin, who claimed that

More therapists and doctors across the country are finding more and more of their patients come in saying they have addictions to that.

So we’ve moved in a few days from a problem that might be extant in America to a problem that’s prevalent in America, almost stalking the country.

Way to go Fox.

Cable Confusion, by e-magic, with Creative Commons licenceThe most interesting aspect of this little adventure in scare-mongering is that new media sites were far less expansive in their coverage, focusing on the crux of Dr Block’s editorial. Tom’s hardware, a portal run by the Bestofmedia Group, focused on the importance of the comments, but it did veer off into speculating that Dr Block might have a vested interest in the situation because he has a patent on a “way” of restricting computer access. This, despite it and the due process associated with determining its significance being declared in the original article.

Pushing further into the unbound spaces of Web 2.0, TechCrunch – yes, a blog – focused on the symptoms Dr Block described before meandering off into musing about how many in Silicon Valley might be so afflicted. But, and this is very important, it actually reported the story more than a week before the editorial went public.

Ars technica –another multi-author blog – went even further, not only covering the editorial early, but also pointing to its own earlier postings on similar subjects, and the debate that flared around a comparable proposal last year.

Mental illness is a serious problem for everyone, whether they want to laugh about it or not. It’s slinking around in both sides of my family, and my wife’s family. It’s probably in yours, in some shape or form. And one of the reasons why it remains largely hidden is that people so easily mock it, shun it, turn away from it, think of other more petty or sometimes more alarmist ways of describing it.

My mom’s hand on the newspaper, by Xosé Castro, with Creative Commons licenceWe should all thank the new media for getting to the point, for opening the possibility of more detailed discussion away from the psychiatric profession. The ars technica comment thread on this subject is uneven, and largely overtaken by rants, but that’s a start. It’s even halfway to being what we might more conventionally term public debate. And that’s a small but welcome step toward understanding in this puzzling world.

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