Computer Addiction as a Gendered Phenomenon
by Lori Reed

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In the late 1990s, a barrage of media reports declared that women were becoming uncontrollably addicted to the Internet and some were neglecting—or even leaving--their husbands and children as a result of their online obsession. Headlines described the strange phenomenon: Internet Blamed for Neglect: Police Say Mother Addicted to Web (Bricking, 1997), ‘Net-addicted Mother Loses Custody of Her Children (1997), Mom Web Addict Allegedly Neglected Kids (1997), and Net Addiction Like Drugs or Alcohol: Woman Left Husband for Computer (Snodgrass, 1997). When Psychologist and Professor Kimberly Young (1996a; 1996b) concluded in her academic study that women were more likely than men to self-report an addiction to the Internet (see also, American Psychological Association, 1996; 1997; Young, 1998), the popular press reported that women were particularly at risk for the condition. For example, Snodgrass (1997) reported that "women are nearly twice as likely to suffer from Internet Addiction." And the examples of female Internet addicts were, indeed, quite striking: One woman, for example, was reported to have been so involved in the Internet that she neglected to provide food and healthcare for her children, and she forgot to buy heating oil for the house (Bricking, 1997). It was reported that when Pam Albridge’s husband demanded that she choose him or the computer and she chose the computer (Snodgrass, 1997). In yet another spectacular case, news media described that, while she was online, Sandra Hacker would lock her children in a "playroom" that had "broken glass, debris, and child handprints of feces on the wall." Police described that "The place was in a shambles, but the computer area was clean—completely immaculate"(Bricking, 1997). These and other cases of child neglect circulated in the popular media became emblematic of Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) or Pathological Internet Use (PIU).

If the popular and psychological discourses surrounding Internet Addiction are approached through the lens of feminist and cultural studies of science, and technology, then, the cultural formation of computer technologies and definitions of "health" and "illness" must be viewed as historically situated and as implicated in cultural, economic, and political relationships. Foucault (1972; 1978; 1991), for example, provides a useful framework for analysis: He is interested in the historical production of truth and he works to understand the processes by which certain concepts become accepted as true and the effects these truths have on people's lives. Foucault assumes that knowledge practices cannot exist outside of power and politics, and he works to describe knowledge practices which organize human behaviors into the "appropriate" and "inappropriate," "normal" and "abnormal." Related feminist analyses regarding the "sexual politics of sickness" such as definitions and diagnoses of "hysteria" or brain disease (cf. Gilman, 1973; Ehrenreich and English, 1979) or addiction (Cole, 1998; Rapping, 1996; Schor & Weed, 1993; Sedgwick, 1992) have also been examined as social products of particular and historically situated gendered perspectives and ideals. From these perspectives, it is necessary to denaturalize such seemingly natural and bounded truths by foregrounding the procedures, assumptions, and institutional arrangements that produce such objects of knowledge. Thus, in the case of Internet addiction, it is important to look at the knowledge practices surrounding the condition as being implicated in how people negotiate the "conduct of conduct"—how people regulate and govern others (and regulate and govern themselves) through the production of truth (Rose, 1998, p. 11). Umiker-Sebeok (2001), for example, draws on this framework to explore Internet addiction as a disciplinary technology. She draws on psychological and popular discourses surrounding Internet addiction, as well as the voices of Internet addicts, to critically investigate how Internet addiction functions to produce and regulate particular behaviors and selves. She investigates ways in which the discourse prescribes particular codes of conduct such as work and gender, as well as how Internet addicts themselves, draw on the discourse toward particular modes of self-governance (See also Reed, 2002). Toward similar ends, this essay seeks to describe some of the significant ways in which Internet addiction functions as an apparatus of governance by mapping the "correlation between fields of knowledge, types of normativity, and forms of subjectivity" in a particular context (Foucault in Rose, 1998, p. 11). It pays particular attention to the ways in which Internet addiction functions as a "technology of gender" (de Lauretis, 1987; Balsamo, 1996), as an apparatus which functions contextually toward the production, definition, negotiation, and management of people's developing relationships with this new media technology even while it produces and manages—or governs—related definitions of "appropriate" and "normal" social practices surrounding gender and family.

Indeed, the formation of female Internet addiction as a "disorderly" social-technological practice, has become the entry point for many psychologists’ assessments about the "appropriate" use of computer networking technologies, as well as for definitions of "appropriate" femininity, motherhood, and arrangements of, and within, the idealized nuclear family. Rose (1999) contends that, at least since the 1950s, psychologists and sociologists have viewed "family to be the central mechanism in modern societies for the transmission of values and standards of conduct" (p. 175). He discusses the family as a "governed" institution that, at the same time, functions to "govern" the values, conducts, and skills of citizenship of the individuals who make up the family (e.g. father, mother, child, husband, wife) (p. 177). In other words, as Rose (1999) and Reid (1995) both assert, it is through particular familial relations that individuals are educated as to the appropriate ways to function in the conduct of personal, social, and political life, and the desire for such family relations must be continuously (re)produced and encouraged. Historically, according to Reid (1995), "handwringing and expressions of alarm over the decline or death of The Family have always been a tactic for re-inscribing and protecting the so-called normative" (p. 185). He describes the contemporary proliferation of stories about "Toxic parents" and other threats to the family as a continuation of a longer history of social management through discourses on the family. Drawing on Reid’s (1995) observations about "family," it can be said that when it comes to Internet addiction, statements that are "ostensibly about health turn out to be always already" about gender in the form of "family" (p. 185). "Family" is perceived to be the institution which assures social order and it is perceived to be "the sole barrier standing between social order and anarchy" (p. 189). Thus, social subjects who do not conform to such familial ideals, whether it manifests itself in child or spousal neglect, sexual promiscuity, or another "anti-family" practice, may be deemed "pathological," as is the case with "Internet Addiction Disorder" and (quite literally) with "Pathological Internet Use."

At the same time, and relatedly, feminists have raise questions about the increased and particular "diseasing of everyday life" (Cole, 1998; Rapping, 1996; Schor & Weed, 1993; Sedgwick, 1992). Rapping traces changes in the discourse on addiction throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s and she argues that there is a significant shift from the Alcoholics-Anonymous discourse of the 1950s which sees chemical dependencies as "allergies" that randomly affect particular bodies, to a more problematic discourse which works to "disease" increasing aspects of everyday life. She describes the 1980s and 1990s discourse on addiction as transforming itself to include what come to be called "emotional" or "behavioral" addictions, such as shopping, eating, or computer use. Part and parcel to this shift, according to Rapping, is a psychologization or individualization of addiction; that is to say that, "addiction," is seen as a problem "within" the individual person rather than a social problem affecting the person. Rapping investigates the gendered politics of the "culture of recovery," and interrogates therapeutic practice as an ambivalent one that addresses women’s needs and gives them important voice, even while it offers an unproductive and "simplistic narrative pattern to explain our lives" (p. 9). She suggests that self-help practices and the language of disease may actually work to maintain unequal gendered and family relations in that words like "dysfunction" and "toxic" may be used to individualize and dismiss behaviors that demand a feminist criticism. For example, male violence against women may be seen as a psychological "disease" rather than a social problem that demands social change (p. 107). Or, women's struggles with, or rejections of, traditional femininity may be viewed as "dysfunction" to be managed at the individual level rather than a broader call for less rigid social roles. Ultimately, Rapping argues that such translations can be dangerously debilitating for a feminist politics. As Schor and Weed (1993) describe the culture of addiction, it renders particular (gendered and classed) subjectivities "as always on the edge and yet somehow susceptible to management" (Front page, "Editor’s Note"). With this in mind, it is important to investigate the discourse on computer addiction as simultaneously a prescriptive, moral, and "normalizing" discourse on gender, sexuality, and the family. "Disorderly" social arrangements are strategically managed, and public, professional, and medico-psychological discursive practices are deployed and "work" to put such idealized relations (back) into place.

New Social Technologies and the Panic Over Gender

Throughout the history of "new" media similar fears and panics have emerged regarding how the technology may cause mental abnormality and/or may disrupt or overturn accepted gender and family roles (Reed, 2000). The telegraph, for example, was perceived as dangerous for its causing of insanity (Garland, 1901), as well as for the ways it could disrupt gender, class and sexual behaviors that could result from communication that did not require face-to-face contact (Marvin, 1988, p. 88). Fears surrounding the telephone, radio, and television also included bio-technical fears such as worries about contraction of disease from the telephone apparatus (Marvin, 1988), nervous disorders from radio (Douglas, 1991), and psychological effects of television on children (Spigel, 1992). Public discussion about the telephone addressed appropriate and inappropriate uses of the phone in gendered terms: women were said to waste the technology with gossip while men used it for serious business (Fischer, 1992, p. 231; Lubar, 1992, p. 32; Marvin, 1988, p. 23). Disease and drug metaphors were attached to radio (Douglas, 1991, p. xv), and Spigel (1992) describes how the incorporation of the radio into the space of the home was met with an astute concentration on how it could be utilized without distracting women from their necessary domestic responsibilities or disrupting accepted gender roles (See also, Wilkins, 1931). Later, similar fears arise with television. Spigel (1992) describes the particularly gendered narratives through which television was installed into the home, and pays particular attention to the public discourse surrounding, and management of, concerns television’s potential to disrupt the gendered order of the home. NBC, for example, managed gender by suggesting that women could make their domestic chores more pleasant by organizing and performing their tasks around their favorite television programs (p. 86).

Similarly, worries about computer technologies focused, at least in part, on concerns about how the new machine might disrupt or overturn traditional gender and family ideals. Faflick (1982), for example, described "how families come apart in the face of the micro invasion" (p. 80). It is well-known that the introduction of computers into US culture did not occur without struggle, that it required much work to re-articulate computers from being feared (masculine) war machines into "friendly" household appliances (Reed, 2000). Early in the history of computing, the "friendship" between people and computers was largely a friendship between men and their computers, and it was during this time that the term "computer widow" emerged (cf. Van Dusen, 1983). Articles such as "My Husband's Computer Was My Competition" (Scott, 1982) counseled women about how to cope with their husband's neglect as a result of his "computer enthusiasm" (Hollands, 1985). Other books and articles similarly "guided" families about how to bring the computer into the home with minimal interruption (Levine, 1983; Levine, 1984; Wollman, 1984). A 1982 issue of the The Saturday Evening Post, for example, included "A Family Computer Album" and declared that "When in need of answers or entertainment, families in this Midwest community are finding their computer a friend indeed" (Olsen, p. 71). Photo captions throughout Olsen’s essay emphasized the computer as friend of the family, both in terms of friendly interactions with individuals, as well as being a friend to the notion or concept of the "family" as a social institution.

In time, computer manufacturers and marketers realized that in order to successfully move the computer into the home, it was necessary to produce the comfortable and proficient female computer user. Advertisers began to market the computer to the female user in ways it had not previously (Lewyn, 1990), and women’s magazines such as The Ladies Home Journal (Asimov, September, 1983; Hait, 1983) GoodHousekeeping (I Couldn’t Learn, 1987) included advice regarding how women could overcome computer fear and to confidently use computers. Women were advised to stop viewing their computers as tools and to, instead, view them as "appliances," just like a toaster, washing machine, or any other household convenience (Van Gelder, 1983; 1985, pp. 89-91). Computer classes especially for women helped to produce confident computer users (A Computer Lesson, 1984). As women gained competence in computing during the 1970s and 1980s, the discourse on computers converged with contemporaneous and emergent debates regarding "women’s rights" and a woman’s "correct" place in the family and society. Isaac Asimov (1983), for example, advocated that "one of the most significant uses for computers [will be], that of finally raising the role of women in the world to full equality with that of men" (p. 66). On the other hand, a prominent conservative figure announced that "We are against the women's rights movement… and we are very concerned about the growing menace of home computers" (quoted in Van Gelder, 1983, p. 36). And it made perfect sense when Ms. Magazine provided guidance and instruction as to how a woman could find herself "falling in love with [her] computer" (Van Gelder, 1983, p. 36). So while the manufacture of female computerphilia was necessary and beneficial to the computer industry, it simultaneously raised cultural anxieties about how the machine might threaten traditional gender and family roles. As a result, much of the 1990s discourse on computer can also be seen as a prescriptive and mediating discourse on gender, the family, and the politics of domestic space (cf. Cassidy, 2001).

When Love Turns to Obsession: Producing Healthy Women and Healthy Families

Into the 1990s, women did increasingly use computers at home and questions continued about just how computer technologies could and should be articulated into people’s lives. Who should use computers? For what purpose? Where should they use them? How should they use them? What are the dangers pertaining to the use of computers? As Marvin (1988) describes in her history of "new" media, "new media intrude on existing habits and organizations and new media provide new platforms on which old groups confront one another. Old habits of transacting between groups are projected onto new technologies that alter, or seem to alter" existing social organization…. "Efforts are launched to restore social equilibrium, and these efforts have significant social risks" (p. 5). She further explains that the history of electronic media can be seen as a "series of arenas for negotiating issues crucial to the conduct of social life, among them, who is inside and outside, who may speak, who may not, and who has authority and may be believed" (p. 4). Not insignificantly, the popular acceptance of the Internet and the World Wide Web was contemporaneous with the "culture of recovery" (Rapping, 1996) in the 1990s, and women’s love for the machine was said to, in some cases, turn to obsession, and several cases of female child neglect due to Internet Addiction received wide public attention. In addition to the proliferation of newspaper reports, television profiles about Internet addiction and Internet-induced family and gender disruptions appeared on such shows as Dateline NBC (February, 1997), Inside Edition (December, 1996), The Maury Povich Show (1998), and the NBC Nightly News (January, 1997), among others. Psychological and psychiatric discourses continued with the warnings first seen throughout the 1970s and 1980s, that home computers constituted a looming threat to the family and, as mentioned previously, it was declared in the 1990s that women were particularly "at risk" for Internet addiction (Snodgrass, 1997).

These processes and dynamics regarding Internet addiction as it connects to the management or governing of the nuclear family are illustrated in two different cases of Internet addiction as they were chronicled separately on Dateline NBC (1997) and the Maury Povich Show (1998). The first segment, from Dateline NBC, presents a report on the disorder and emphasizes the struggle of Glenda Farrell, a self-described Internet addict. Introduced as "Tammy’s mother," Glenda is said to have been "the perfect model of the perfect mother. " She was a Cub Scout den mother, an Assistant Brownie leader, and Booster Club Secretary. As her daughter, Tammy explains, "It seemed like we had the perfect life...[until]...the computer.... And then that’s when everything just it just seemed to go bad." Glenda herself admitted that in only a couple of months she was "hooked" on the Internet. Prior to the acquisition of the computer Glenda’s marriage was "a very good marriage." She remembers, "I was very happy, or I thought I was very happy until I found the--the computer." When away from the computer, Glenda suffered symptoms of withdrawal: "I would get very nervous, very upset, very short with, you know, with people, you know because I was wanting to be on the box."

Glenda’s on-line persona, "Jeepers," is said to have an identity quite different from the one Glenda lived offline. As Keith Morrison narrates, "Glenda was a full-time mom and wife, probably quiet, involved in homey things. And Jeepers talked a lot, very outgoing personality...." Glenda stopped cooking dinner, stopped helping the kids with their homework, and stopped her other domestic chores. Eventually, Glenda left her husband of 19 years and her three teenaged children. And, the Dateline reporter asks, what was the cause for Glenda’s betrayal of her family? Glenda explains: "I don’t know how to explain the power that the box has over people! And it wasn’t just me, it was several others leaving their husbands or their wives." Indeed, the concept of "addiction" makes Glenda’s behavior intelligible in that it could only be an outside (and uncontrollable) force that could drive Glenda away from her familial responsibilities. Afterall, she was "happy" before the computer entered her life. Eventually, Glenda came to realize that Jeepers was not "real," not her "true" self, and the segment concludes with commentary by reporter Keith Morrison: [Glenda] still sees the man she met online...[but they have their problems]...She s gotten a job and lives alone. She still has a computer …But she works now and has little time to chat. It is reported that, eventually, Glenda saw the errors of her ways and was brought back to "normality" to be, according to Morrison, "like the vast majority of the over 10 million Americans online." And Glenda’s televised confession functions as part of the therapeutic return to her "true" feminine self, and as a "cautionary tale" to help other people avoid the dangerous lure of the Internet.

By comparison, Sandra Hacker’s situation offers a slightly different perspective on the process of "becoming an addict" and the cultural materialization of Internet addiction. In spite of much outside encouragement, Hacker refused to call herself an "addict." Instead, she demanded that her behavior be seen as a rejection of the traditionally feminine domestic role, and as a statement that childcare and housework are not solely the responsibility of women. Hacker’s spectacular "case" provides the tantalizing opening for the show:

Povich: Today we are going to meet people who admit they are addicted to their computers….They neglect their housework and jobs, drive their spouses away or lose custody of their children. Take Sandra Hacker. She spent hours in chat rooms while her family lived in squalor and her children played in their own excrement... Sandy Hacker got her reality check when she was accused of being addicted to the Internet…. She was arrested, put in jail and she’s currently on probation for child neglect

When asked, Hacker tries to explain that her husband shares equal or more responsibility for the household mess and unsanitary conditions provided for the children:

Hacker: We were separated. I was gonna go out of to out of town and ask him if it was OK. I‘ve never been away from the family…And he said OK. I went to Chicago. He called me…I was there for a day. He called me…and said that if I didn’t come back home he was gonna call the police for child abandonment because I left the state. So I drive right back home. He had the locks changed on my apartment. The only way he would agree to give me a key to my apartment is if I agreed to work on the marriage. So I told him I would in order to be able to get into my home. When I get into my home, my house in a shambles. I mean, it’s a disaster area.

But Povich directs the discussion elsewhere:

Povich: You re talking about him and you re the one on probation, you re the one who lost the kids… And the reason, according to many, is that you got addicted to the Internet…..

Hacker: I don’t believe I was addicted. I’ve only been online since, like, April. There are time when, you know, I’m probably...shouldn’t been....was on it a little longer than I should... This was my day schedule. I would get up at 5AM, get the kids ready for day care, take the kids to day care, take my husband to work, drive myself to work, then I would go and pick the kids up from day care, wait an hour to pick him up, then come home, make dinner, get the kids ready for bed.

Povich finds this to be implausible, given the reported conditions of the household. Afterall, Hacker’s description of her own behavior sounds quite "normal." Povich then moves to locate the cause of Hacker’s behavior in the Internet. Hacker avoids this interpretation and, instead, describes a general problem with the marital arrangements:

Povich: But this Internet according to the authorities, and your ex-husband, of course, this Internet caused all your problems

Hacker: No, we had problems before I even know what AOL was...

Povich: I get the feeling that your attitude now is you’re not going to blame the Internet for any of your problems….You re gonna blame your husband, you re gonna blame other things, you re not gonna blame the Internet, and your use of it.

Hacker: Not not really because he was on it, you know, all the time, too... And, I didn’t, you know, say he was addicted.

Povich: So in a way, you re in denial?

Hacker: I wouldn't say that.

When Hacker refuses to subject herself to the position of "addict," Povich continues to impose the addiction discourse onto translations of Hacker’s computer use. When she further rejects this interpretation, he delves deeper into the tools of the discourse to delegitimize her resistance: "So in a way, you’re in denial." At this point, within the discourse on addiction, her further rejection of the designation becomes further evidence of her "addiction" and need for professional help.

As the discussion continues, a frustrated Povich, who becomes impatient with Hacker’s refusal to speak her "addiction," turns to the teleprompter to preview the next segments of the show. Hacker’s story is only briefly addressed again when Povich asks psychological expert, Dr. Greenfield, for a diagnosis of Hacker’s condition. But Greenfield abstains from coming to the conclusion that Hacker is clinically addicted. Later, however, Greenfield acknowledges that the Internet is "a very powerful, powerful medium. And everybody that gets online reports this phenomenon of being overwhelmed by it and taken over by it." In this instance, through Povich’s prodding, the audience’s reactions, the expert diagnoses, Hacker is not encouraged to be the subject of her own perceptions. Rather, following Sedgwick’s (1992) analysis of the politics of addiction and confession culture, we can say that Hacker "is installed as the proper object of compulsory institutional disciplines, legal and medical, which, without actually being able to do anything to ‘help’ her, nonetheless presume to know her better than she can know herself" (p. 582). The addiction discourse offers Hacker a vehicle for self-knowledge and self-transformation, a "symbolic and normative vocabulary for identifying and transcending individual ‘failing.’" (Nadeson, 1997, p. 208). Hacker refuses to be spoken in this way. Yet, her willful rejection of the "addict" designation, her option to be non-addicted becomes suspect and is mobilized as further evidence of her pathology. As Nadeson (1997) describes the process of subjectification, "the individual’s capacity for maintaining and achieving ‘health’ is viewed as being structured around his or her use of the discourse and techniques of psychology for self-knowledge and self-transformation. Furthermore, the discursive equation between disease and psychological ‘pathology’ introduces a moral compulsion for the individual to take care of his or herself. Indeed, a failure of the self to take care of itself constitutes irrationality and a moral failure" (p. 210). Thus, Hacker’s refusal to become an "addict" is even more problematic in that it suggests that she "willfully" neglected her children. In turn, this willful act reveals the "work" necessary toward the attainment of "natural" gender and familial arrangements.


Concluding Remarks

In terms of the manufacture of "appropriate" femininity, Glenda Farrell functions as an exemplary subject as she readily speaks about her gender transgressions in terms of her computer use, and her computer use through the discourses on addiction. Ultimately, she speaks of her transgressions as inappropriate acts of irresponsibility and lapses in judgement. She accepts that Jeepers was "not real," and that the life that Glenda led prior to her Internet addiction was her real life. Glenda expresses regret for her "anti-family" practices as self-mobilizes the addiction apparatus as a means to gain (and to speak) her freedom to choose her own behavior, and to return to her "true" self. Sandra Hacker, on the other hand, functions as an "unruly" subject insofar as she rejects the addiction discourse as an explanatory framework for her gender transgressions. She resists being positioned as an "addict" and, therefore, an "unhealthy" woman. Instead, she argues that her behavior be viewed as commentary on the gendered division of labor in the home. As Rapping (1996) suggests, to translate Hacker’s behavior into the discourse on addiction both defuses the social commentary and delegitimizes her oppositional voice.

Together, the cases of Glenda Farrell and Sandra Hacker offer a useful illustration as to how the dual process of subjectification operates in two important ways to enhance the governability of populations:

First, they operated as dividing practices which partition the individual internally or separate him or her from others. Second, they operated as a technique of subjectification by transforming individuals into particular kinds of subjects by heightening their existential insecurity and their sensitivity to normativity. In their efforts to secure their identities, individuals drew on the very same psychological vocabulary that effected their objectification (Nadeson, p. 202).

Insofar as the discourse on Internet Addiction Disorder and Pathological Internet Use is actively mobilized toward re-ordering individual and social arrangements, it can be viewed as a "normalizing" and moral discourse which advocates, prescribes, and even activates particular notions of "normal" and "healthy" gender, sexuality, and family. Thus, the (attempted) restoration of "health" and "freedom from addiction/compulsion" is also the (attempted) restoration of "appropriate" femininity and "appropriate" motherhood. Rose (1999) describes this process of relocating the question about the conduct of life within the field of expertise such that mobilization of such knowledge appears as a quest for the true self, as a matter of freedom. Thus, it is important that the diagnosis and identification of Internet addiction not be viewed as a mere a technical byproduct or result of scientifically pure psychological discourses on addiction, or as simply a means of regaining lost control, or of attaining "freedom" over one’s life. Rather, the medicalization of Internet use and the culturally specific definitions and formations of Internet addiction are significantly implicated in competing, contested, and political notions of gender and familial practices. An exploration into the gendered dynamics surrounding the definition and management of computer and Internet addiction make present some of the social practices, debates, and ideals that have been crucial toward the shaping of the new technology. At the same time, and relatedly, it must raise caution regarding the uncritical use of an analytic of "health" and "illness" as an explanatory framework through which to explain—or dismiss--how and why women reject, ignore, subvert, or simply abandon practices of domesticity and the feminine role. It urges us to investigate about how the cultural formation of new technologies and discourses on "health" and "illness" may be mobilized toward the production of particular and contested "selves," and toward the (interested) regulation of social conduct—in this case, toward particular practices of gender, family, and the home.



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Revised, July 2002.




Lori Reed
Assistant Professor
Department of Communication Studies
University of Rhode Island
Kingston, RI 02881

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