Internet addiction from a narrative psychology point of view

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This paper examines Internet addiction from the perspective of narrative psychology. A brief sketch of this perspective is necessary before proceeding.

Narrative psychology

A narrative understanding of human behaviour attends to the meanings negotiated around action, ranging from routine accounting to tall tales. This semiotic approach borrows primarily from the literary field in analysing these meanings.

An often-used literary device in narrative psychology is the schema of four mythoi, developed by Northrop Frye. According to this literary theorist, narrative structures proceed in a cycle that includes romance, comedy, tragedy and satire. In romance, the individual triumphs over adversity and a new order is instituted. By contrast, in comedy the individual gives way to the group, which is refreshed by overcoming dissent. In tragedy, an individual cannot return to this world from the ordeal. And as a catchall category, in satire the preceding three myths are shown to be unrealistic. The four mythoi offer interpretations of episodes in which individual and group encounter threats to their existence.

In the case of Internet addiction, a narrative approach attends to the implicit stories that are used to make sense of this phenomenon. This paper divides into two parts. The first part examines the meanings attached to the online experience. The second part views some of the narrative structures that contain the addiction phenomenon.

The meaning of online

Within a Platonic point of view, the terrestrial world is a thin shadow of the metaphysical envelope whose essential forms give shape to our own. What distinguishes the metaphysical realm is a transparency to truth. The neo-Platonist Plotinus elaborates this in detail:

To ‘live at ease’ is There; and to these divine beings verity is mother and nurse, existence and sustenance; all that is not of process but of authentic being they see, and themselves in all: for all is transparent, nothing dark, nothing resistant; every being is lucid to every other, in breadth and depth; light runs through light. And each of them contains all within itself, and at the same time sees all in every other, so that everywhere there is all, and all is all and each all, and infinite the glory. Each of them is great; the small is great; the sun, There, is all the stars; and every star, again, is all the stars and sun. While some one manner of being is dominant in each, all are mirrored in every other.

To an extent, the Internet seems as close as human technology has come to a realm in which distance is dissolved. In spatial terms, it annuls the global distances that separate nations. In temporal terms, information that is stored digitally is largely immune to the forces of decay that normally beset material media, such as stone and paper.

The more ecstatic exponents of cyberspace herald a new form of life that will evolve inside this transparent world. French philosopher Pierre Lévy has heralded the utopian possibilities of this technology:

Collective intelligence is less concerned with the self-control of human communities than with a fundamental letting-go that is capable of alternating our very notion of identity and the mechanism of domination and conflict, lifting restrictions on heretofore banned communications, and effecting the mutual liberation of isolated thoughts.

While there are many practical elements in the digital revolution that extend the reaches of communication technology beyond existing limits of space and time, we still need to examine coldly the kinds of fantasies that attend this ‘breakthrough’. To moderns, the notion of a Platonic realm of ideas seems not only a fanciful dream, but also a means of denying the importance of this sublunar realm. To a similar extent, one might adopt a critical perspective towards cyberspace as an escape from the reality principle.

A psychoanalytic perspective is useful for considering the unconscious fantasies at work in the concept of cyberspace. In particular, the Lacanian brand of Freudianism points to an ‘imaginary’ fantasy in which the alienating role of the symbolic realm is magically elided.

Perhaps radical virtualisation—the fact that the whole of reality will soon be ‘digitalised’, transcribed, redoubled in the ‘big Other’ of cyberspace—will somehow redeem ‘real life’, opening it up to a new perception, just as Hegel already had a presentiment that the end of art (as the ‘sensible appearing of the Idea’), which occurs when the Idea withdraws from the sensible medium into its more direct conceptual expression, simultaneously liberates sensibility from the constraints of the Idea?

In its imaginary functioning, cyberspace is presented as a realm where symbolic distinctions no longer hold. In the realm of identity politics, gender no longer indelibly marks the individual self. And in the sphere of global economy, markets are free to extend beyond geographic frontiers.

This Lacanian scepticism to the enthusiasms of the digital revolution can overshadow the more immediate consolations of going online. In a simple way, cyberspace is an antidote to loneliness, offering a buzzing world of users at the press of a button—any time, day or night, with no risk of commitment. Even more rudimentary, it is a clean world devoid of matter. For those of an obsessive-compulsive disposition, the transfer of information online provides a clean and abstract form of exchange compared to the potentially flawed attempts to communicate through paper or voice.

At a personal level, these fantasies offer some explanation of the lure of cyberspace. Of course, there are broader sociological currents, related to the end of the millennium, democracy and the spread of global capitalism. Such collective narratives carry these fantasies, but they are not the particular focus of narrative psychologists, who are interested more in stories of personal change rather than the collective drift.

Addiction or adventure?

Online is a realm separate from everyday life. As such, it offers the potential to function as an ‘adventure space’ in which personal development can occur. The concept ‘adventure space’ is derived from Mikhail Bakhtin’s analysis of the novel. His literary history unravels a series of ‘chronotopes’—time-space structures in which certain patterns of character emerge. Applied to contemporary travel stories, the modern chronotope typical of personal adventure is the discovery of a transcendental element that adds stature in an individual’s moral career.

Such a positive experience seems at odds with most accounts of cyberspace. For example, the received notion of Internet addiction reflects the psychoanalytic reading of cyberspace as an escape from life’s realities. Escape may sometimes be a way to re-enter reality.

Sad tale

Internet addiction is conventionally presented as an obsession that gradually takes over an individual’s life. Contact with others and commitment to work decline in favour of the pleasures of online interaction with others. These stories are framed as ‘sad tales’ that evoke pity in the listener. For this instance,

Susan, a female student got a new, top-of-the-line computer from her parents as she began her first year of college away from home. Shortly after classes started, she discovered the communications programs and began spending lots time in her dorm room, on the computer. It started with e-mail and spread to the Web and IRC. She found herself justifying herself to others who questioned her computer time by saying that it was necessary for school work. That semester, her GPA dropped so low that she had to consider dropping out of school.

In terms of the literary devices we outlined earlier, these sad tales bear strongest resemblance to tragic mythos. Each contains a hero who travels to a world far from home, but cannot return. The ‘sad tale’ of Internet addiction, however, is a two-dimensional character study and lacks the depth of a tragic narrative. There is little sense of internal struggle and no greater moral issue at stake.

It could be argued that these stories of addiction are exaggerated to suit the demands of popular media that strive to capture reader’s attention. As such, these stories play to a continuing interest in the helpless victims of modern technology. What they don’t offer is the possibility of a more positive narrative construction.

Other tales

To explore other narrative possibilities, a study was conducted in the Netherlands. Students of Vakgroep Ontwikkkelingspsychologie in Universiteit Utrecht were supplied with four different story beginnings. These four beginnings were generated from two variables: gender and class.

In previous studies, it had been found that heroes who emerge from the margins of society are likely to follow a romantic pattern, whereas those who emerge from its centre adhere to a comic narrative. This difference is explained in terms of the potential movement possible with each narrative. Romance concerns success won from adversity, whereas comedy is about solidarity gained from social difference.

A class was divided into four groups and each group was given essentially the same story:

X’s childhood is quite normal until s/he finds access to computers at school. Though the Internet, s/he discovers the mysterious world of Internet Relay Chat and various Moo-spaces where s/he has the opportunity of trying out different roles. With time, X becomes absorbed by this world and outside reality begins to fade in importance. S/he neglects study and friends.

In two groups, the hero (Michael & Vanessa) was born into a working class family (father was a dakdekker—roof tiler) in a lower class town (Barneveld). In the other two groups, their heroes (Floris-Jan & Godelieve) had upper class parents (father is Phillips executive and mother a television producer) and lived in a prestigious town (het Gooi).

The task of each group was to complete the story in a way that was both plausible and interesting. The following table outlines the results:

GENDER\STATUS HIGH LOW
MALE Tragedy Tragedy
FEMALE Comedy Satire

Apart from one case, the students constructed negative stories of Internet addiction. Their stories are informed by a pessimism about the possibility of realising hopes in an individual life.

The positive story was the most complex.

Godelieve is neglected by her parents and tries to make contact with someone else online. She pretends she is from a poor background and meets someone also humble. When they meet in real life, he is angry at her deception and leaves. She is broken by this experience and goes back home where her parents put her through the rest of school. She eventually becomes a soap opera star and finds a way of playing many different roles.

As is typical in a comic scenario, what had previously made the hero strange to society is made palatable. Godelieve’s tendency to take on other personae, partly to escape the privileged confinement of her background, initially leads to conflict. Returning to her family, however, provides Godelieve with the basis from which to re-launch her life. A career in acting provides a means of turning her source of deviance into one of conformity.

Narrative potential of addiction

As a space of adventure, online provides the potential for ruin or success. As such it offer the kind of test of hazard that the English ethnologists identify as critical to the construction of a moral career. Internet addiction can be treated in a similar fashion to other otherworldly interests, for example the ‘travel bug’ or being a ‘book worm’.

Psychologists eager to extend the classification system of mental disorders should be cautioned by the inherent dialectic structure of Internet addiction. As a denial of the real world, such an escape can allow for its re-emergence in a manner more powerful than would otherwise be. Particularly if the encounter with the Internet addiction was framed as a battle, then such an experience adds credit to an individual’s life story.

In conclusion, it is important to keep our eyes open to the variety of online disorders. Rather that consign the individual as a victim of technological seduction, it is better to allow him or her the ability to fail the reality test, and thereby grasp the potential to succeed.

Status of Internet addiction

On consequence of the narrative approach is to make the object of human psychology seem socially constructed. In the case of Internet addiction, this episode becomes a device that can be easily substituted by other otherworldly experiences, such as war or travel. By implication, the seriousness of the phenomenon seems subjective and is therefore lessened.

It should be said that narrative psychology is best used as one of a complex of approaches. It is not best suited to understand the physiological effects that might come from screen play. However, it is useful for questioning those narrative frames that inevitably operate in making sense of human deviance.

In the case of Internet addiction, the dominant understanding is one of victim psychology, in which a helpless individual is sucked into a technological monster and loses touch with family and friends. Such stories of Internet addiction contribute to a corpus of tragedies that include such events as cult indoctrinations. It is important to note other potential paths that individuals might take as they travel through such an experience. Particularly, there is way back through romance or comedy whereby this drama might actually add strength to the world of the sufferer. The acknowledgment of such paths is critical to provide an alternative resolution to such institutionalised procedures as behavioural or chemical therapy.

This chapter was written for a book on Internet Addiction published in Russian by Moscow University (to be published when the economy permits)

Text is copyright Kevin Murray. For reproduction inquiries, email