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Chapter 3

Determining the Risk of Digital
Addiction to Adolescent
Targets of Internet Trolling:
Implications for the UK Legal System
Jonathan Bishop
Centre for Research into Online Communities and E-Learning Systems, UK

ABSTRACT
Research on digital addiction has been increasing significantly since the start of the 2010s. What is not
currently available is a measurement scale to assess the extent to which adolescents are at risk of abuse
on the Internet that might lead them to develop digital addiction. This chapter sets out to develop a checklist that can be used to risk assess those youths who might be at risk of digital addiction. Through using
data from a study into 1,828 young people aged 9-16, the study devised a 6-point check-list based on
using a t-test to determine those at high risk and those at low risk. The check-list can be seen as a reliable way for screening those adolescents for whom concerns are raised over their online activities. The
chapter concludes that further research will be needed to test the scale with people in older age ranges.

INTRODUCTION
The Internet has opened up opportunities for many to gain access to ideas and social relationships not
otherwise possible in a geographic locality, such as an organic community (Van Dijk, 1999; Van Dijk,
2005). With this has come new problems for vulnerable groups in society, most evidently children and
adolescents. Whilst at one point sex offenders might frequent places offline where they are likely to access
children, now they use social media platforms accessible by children to abuse them, either emotionally,
physically or both. Equally, whilst at one point children would only get bullied outside of the home,
such as at school or after school clubs, now as a result of Internet technologies they can be bullied even
from the presumed security of their family setting. Adolescents have a less developed prefrontal cortex
compared to adults, and this can put them at greater risk of psychiatric harm and therefore the need to
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8595-6.ch003


Determining the Risk of Digital Addiction to Adolescent Targets of Internet Trolling

develop compulsions to self-medicate away the rises in serotonin levels as a result of not having come
to terms with such a trauma. One means of escapism for youths is the Internet, for which the seductive
properties can detach them from their unwanted thoughts (Leung, 2003).

DIGITAL ADDICTION
Digital addiction is a term distinct from Internet addiction. The term digital addiction assumes that a
person has compulsive tendencies and that the Internet and other technology is the means by which they
reduce the anxiety levels that come about from the trauma creating the need for compulsive behaviours.
The assumption is that digital addicts would be pursuing some other form of addiction if the Internet
and digital technology did not exist.

Serotonergic‐Dopaminergic Asynchronicity
Dopamine dysregulation has been an established concept for a number of years (Murray, Lappin, & Di
Forti, 2008; O’Sullivan, Evans, & Lees, 2009), and the links between dopamine and serotonin regulation
and psychiatric conditions is without doubt. It is only recently, however, the development of neuroeconomics equations have been achieved in order to allow for the systematic manipulation of what have
become known as ‘phantasies’ (Bishop, 2012; Bishop, 2011). Phantasies can been seen as inhibitors to
flow between synapses that are created by the brain to protect a given neurological function from harm
caused by an influx of traumatic stimuli requiring that function, which if accessed would overload and
impair it permanently. Such psychiatric injuries are called ‘bleasures’ (Bishop, 2014a; Bishop, 2014c;
Bishop, 2014d), as explored in the case of King v Bristow Helicopters Ltd [2002] 1 All ER (Comm)
385. The existence of these phantasies can give rise to what is known as serotonergic‐dopaminergic
asynchronicity (SDA). This is where a person being placed in an environment where they re‐experience
stimuli that is similar to that they experienced at the time a bleasure led to the creation of a phantasy.
Having that phantasy brought to the forefront of their mind, then results in the brain generating serotonin at the same time that focus on the unwanted memory increases dopamine levels, which together
cause psychotic symptoms. A representation of these processes that occur between a person with SDA
perceiving a stimulus and responding to it is in Figure 1.
The diagram in Figure 1 is based on a combination of the ecological cognition framework (Bishop,
2007a) and the model of cognitive abnormalities and symptoms of schizophrenia (Hemsley, 1994; Nuechterlein & Subotnik, 1998). As can be seen, there is a clear process that is caused by the observation of a
stimulus that as a result of its ambiguities leads to the activation of a phantasy based on a bleasure and
thus disrupts the normal social context of the person observing it. Social context is limited by a person’s
capabilities (Mantovani, 1996a; Mantovani, 1996b), including their ability to deal with the activation of
phantasies. Online environments are certainly not immune from providing stimuli that results in a reactivation of bleasure induced phantasies, and can in fact be the cause of them. As can be deduced from
Figure 1, a stimulus such seeing the name of a cyberbully in one’s email box, although irrelevant to a
person can lead to them experiencing a desire to open it as if it were persuasive text (Bishop, 2007b), if
the bully in question caused someone to experience a bleasure resulting in a phantasy. Even though they
regard this desire to be an intrusion of their actual wishes (i.e. causing impetus) they are not able to see

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Determining the Risk of Digital Addiction to Adolescent Targets of Internet Trolling

Figure 1. The thought processes of a person with SDA in a given situation

the post as irrelevant as they would any other email due to the elevated dopamine and serotonin levels
because the phantasy activated has caused SDA resulting in an unwanted neuro-response in the form of
the desire to open the email. This will then result in the person affected by the email being caught in a
dilemma cycle by trying to avoid dealing with the unwanted demand on them to make a decision about
what to with the desire to open the email, causing dissonance (Bishop, 2011). The person, by trying
to avoid the irrelevant neuro-response, may result in them putting the unwanted desire down to some
delusional cause, which forms part of their denial, which can lead to compulsions, such as problematic
Internet use. While the person is in denial about their dissonant mental state being put down to a specific
bleasure causing the problematic phantasy, then their SDA will continue to exist.

BACKGROUND
In devising a scale to screen for digital addiction it is necessary to consider some of the legal implications of diagnosing such a condition. Specifically psychiatric injury and child protection are the key
areas to consider.

Psychiatric Injury Law
It has been difficult to prove or disprove the existence of bleasures (i.e. psychiatric injuries). This is
in part because the line between physical and mental or emotional injury in a particular case may be
unclear, meaning it is often difficult to determine the causes of the liability being contested (McWhinnie, 2013). Even so, respect for psychiatrists as witness by the judiciary in assessing the question of

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Determining the Risk of Digital Addiction to Adolescent Targets of Internet Trolling

recognizable psychiatric injury, are clearly visible in some negligence legal cases (Mulheron, 2012). It
has been argued that where psychiatric injury is relied upon as the basis for an allegation of physical
harm, and the matter has not been accepted by the defense, expert testimony should be called by the
prosecution, especially in harassment cases (Gowland, 2013). It has been argued that the distinction between ‘mere emotional distress’ and a ‘recognised psychiatric injury’ is largely one of degree (Stannard,
2010). However, there are a number of obstacles put in by the legal systems as a result of Alcock and
Others (Appellants) v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police [1991] 3 W.L.R. 1057, which means
that even if it were possible to show that a shocking event caused someone to suffer from serotonergic‐
dopaminergic asynchronicity (SDA) that it might be difficult to win a case for psychiatric injury. An
excerpt from the judgement is below:
In order to establish a claim in respect of psychiatric illness resulting from shock it was necessary to
show not only that such injury was reasonably foreseeable, but also that the relationship between the
plaintiff and the defendant was sufficiently proximate; that the class of persons to whom a duty of care
was owed as being sufficiently proximate was not limited by reference to particular relationships such as
husband and wife or parent and child, but was based on ties of love and affection, the closeness of which
would need to be proved in each case; that remoter relationships would require careful scrutiny; and that
a plaintiff also had to show propinquity in time and space to the accident or its immediate aftermath.
As might be clear from this, there will need to be changes in case law for psychiatric injury caused
to a person on the Internet in the form of bleasures. This may change as SDA becomes accepted and the
means for identifying and recording the phantasies causing it (Bishop, 2012) more precise. One only
needs to consider the cases of US teenagers, Megan Taylor Meier and Parsons Rehtaeh, who respectively committed suicide and attempted suicide following being victims of Internet trolling to see that
the requirement for someone to experience a bleasure unaided – such as by the Internet, is ineffective
and unjust in this digital age. In the United Kingdom, Bridget Agar reported experiencing shock when
a troll pretended to be her dead son to her relief only then to tell her son had gone to hell. Equally, the
British feminist, Caroline Criado-Perez, reported ‘lasting psychological effects’ after being trolled over
a 48-hour period when she called for less men to be on banknotes. This shows that in the case of both of
this it might be possible to be bleasured to the point of suffering from SDA with the aid of a computer
interface. It might equally show that whilst Bridget Agar was proximate to her son that a troll caused her
trauma from pretending to be him, it could be possible that Caroline Criado-Perez could suffer the same
degree of bleasures, producing SDA, as Agar even though she did not know her abusers. It could be that
the social construction of a virtual environment in an organic one increases the proximity in an imagined
sense through social context (Mantovani, 1996a; Mantovani, 1996b). The judgement in the Alcock case
might suggest that Olympic diver, Tom Daley, who was told he let his late father down by a troll when
he failed to win a medal, would be able to win a case for psychiatric injury because he was close to his
father, even if the number of bleasures and degree of SDA was minimum. Finally the requirement for a
victim of bleasures leading to SDA to show ‘propinquity’ – that they were in the locality of the bleasure
inducing event could be problematic. It would need to be strongly asserted that the fact a person is experiencing bleasures in their home or other environment with a device for accessing the Internet means
they show propinquity as the abuse of them is occurring in their own home or other locality. Such proof
of the propinquity of persons on websites being socially constructed as being in the immediate space of

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Determining the Risk of Digital Addiction to Adolescent Targets of Internet Trolling

the person observing those users is long established (Bishop, 2007b; Rheingold, 1993; Rheingold, 2000;
Turkle, 1995). Concepts such as flow and involvement (Bishop, 2012; Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Nel, Van
Niekerk, Berthon, & Davies, 1999; Novak, Hoffman, & Yung, 2000; Webster, Trevino, & Ryan, 1993),
which in the case of the former more greatly immerses someone in their environment and in the case of
the latter can reduce engagement are known to influence whether someone’s SDA becomes symptomatic
or not (Bishop, 2012; Bishop, 2013; Bishop, 2011).

Child Protection Law
There are a wide number of child protection laws in the UK, which can in theory offer protection from
harm to children caused by the Internet and other digital technologies. In terms of physical abuse such
as sex offenses, the Protection of Children Act 1978 has proven effective in protecting children from
conduct that amounts to child abuse. It clearly provides protection for children from the taking, making,
distributing or possession of child pornography (Weinstein, Macewan, & Geach, 2011). It is possible
for the Internet to be used by sex offenders as a means to procure children for sexual exploitation. The
Sexual Offences Act 2003 introduced an offence of ‘grooming’ which was intend to make such actions
prosecutable as it was a grey area, as evidenced in the case of R v Max Clifford (2014). The Children
Act 1989 would in theory provide that where a parent is not ensuring the welfare of their children when
they are using the Internet, then the welfare of the child must be put first in any eventuality arising out
of such inaction. The Serious Crime Bill currently going through the UK Parliament aims to introduce
offences that would protect children from serious psychological harm and emotional abuse, which would
include not only sexual abuse, but Internet trolling and cyberbullying also. The aim of this paper, therefore, is to identify means for assessing whether children are at risk from online abuses, or have already
been a victim of childhood abuse via the Internet.

DEVISING A MEASUREMENT SCALE FOR ASSESSING
RISK TO ADOLESCENTS WITH SDA BASED ON
SYMPTOMS OF COMPULSIVE INTERNET USE
Now this paper has established the existence of serotonergic‐dopaminergic asynchronicity and the limitations and protections in the law for lawsuits relating to those adolescents who suffer from it, the rest
of this paper seeks to develop a check-list for those who have self-reported symptoms of SDA to see
whether further investigations are needed. To do this a dataset was acquired that asked youths from across
Europe various questions which can be used to answer this research problem. The dataset used in this
study was a secondary one retrieved from the UK Data Service, formerly known as the Economic and
Social Data Service and UK Data Archive. Data was collected between April 2010 and October 2010
in the following European countries: Austria; Belgium; Bulgaria; Cyprus; Czech Republic; Denmark;
Estonia; Finland; France; Germany; Greece; Hungary; Ireland; Italy; Lithuania; Netherlands; Norway;
Poland; Portugal; Romania; Slovenia; Spain; Sweden; Turkey; United Kingdom.

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Determining the Risk of Digital Addiction to Adolescent Targets of Internet Trolling

Participants
Participants were children aged 9‐16 years old and one of their parents, from 25 EU countries who used
the internet during 2010. A total of 1775 responses were valid out of 1828 participants surveyed, making
97.1 of case valid and only 53 (2.9%) needing to be excluded.

Methodology
The methodology used to devise a scale in this paper – the t‐test – might seem unusual to those used
to developing scales using a factor analysis technique. The purpose of this study was not so much to
develop a scale with various elements to it (i.e. factors) but, as stated above, to objectively develop a
short check‐list for quickly assessing the risk to someone with serotonergic‐dopaminergic asynchronicity
(DSA), especially a youth, of developing a compulsive and problematic dependence on taking part in
activities on the Internet to the exclusion of other pursuits, which may have legal consequences. The point
of the t‐test therefore was to determine which questions should be allocated to an item that is checked
(the highest mean) and which should be allocated where that item is not checked (the lowest mean).
As described above, a total of 1,828 young people were interviewed, who were not checked specifically for SDA, and were all asked the question “In the last 12 months have you gone to a meeting with
someone you met online that bothered you?” to which 1775 (97.1%) responded. This was then used to
group participants into two groups, which was those who answered ‘yes’ to this question and those who
answered ‘no.’ It was unfortunate that the groups were not equally weighted, with up to 207 answering
‘yes’ and up to 1621 answering ‘no.’ A ‘yes’ answer to this question might suggest that the person has
SDA to some degree, as it might be that the incident that bothered them was traumatic to one degree
or another.

Results
The outcome of the data analysis showed some important findings, not only for the development of a
check-list to identify potential victims of child abuse, but also understanding more generally the attitudes
of adolescents who have self-reported being subject to a situation they find uncomfortable. Table 1 clearly
shows the statements investigated, the significance of the Means and their values. It also shows whether
a particular statement was selected for the check-list. As can be seen from this table, those statements
with the highest Mean value are reassigned to a ‘Yes’ for the check-list where appropriate, and those
with the lowest Mean value are assigned to ‘No.’ This therefore means that those items that are answered
‘yes’ by a child are the ones identifiable as risk factors.
Considering statement A in Table 1, namely ‘I know more about the internet than my parents,’ it was
decided not to reject the null. This is because there was no significant difference between the two groups
(t=0.339, p=<0.690), with a Mean of 2.5507 for the group that reported as being bothered by something
that happed on the Internet and a Mean of 2.5342 for those who did not. This means there was no strong
evidence to show that this statement was appropriate for assessing risk. In the case of statement B (i.e.
‘I know lots of things about using the internet’) it was decided to reject the null because there was a
significant difference between the two groups (t=-2.892, p=<0.008). The group that scored a Mean of
2.4444 was the one that self-reported being bothered, and the one for the group that did not was a Mean

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Table 1. Scale items
Statement

Statement
(Keep/Reject)

Bothered by
encounter
(Scale position)

N

Mean

Std.
Deviation

A. I know more about
the internet than my
parents

0.689

Yes (Not on scale)

207

2.5507

.65810

(Keep the null)

No (Not on scale)

1621

2.5342

65891

B. I know lots of things
about using the internet

0.007

Yes (“No” on
scale)

207

2.4444

.61971

(Reject the null)

No (“Yes” on
scale)

1621

2.5663

.56444

C. There are lots of
things on the internet
that are good for
children my age

0.386

Yes (Not on scale)

207

2.5459

.62827

(Keep the null)

No (Not on scale)

1621

2.5256

.58804

D. I have gone without
eating or sleeping
because of the internet
(in last 12 months)

0.00

Yes (“Yes” on
scale)

205

1.6293

.94926

(Reject the null)

No (“No” on scale)

1599

1.3521

.64498

E. I have felt bothered
when I cannot be on
the internet (in last 12
months)

0.007

Yes (“Yes” on
scale)

205

2.0244

.97739

(Reject the null)

No (“No” on scale)

1604

1.8298

.89308

F. I have caught myself
surfing when I’m not
really interested (in last
12 months)

0.022

Yes (“Yes” on
scale)

203

2.2512

1.02972

(Reject the null)

No (“No” on scale)

1596

     2.0695

.95847

G. I have spent less
time than I should with
either family,
friends or doing
schoolwork because of
the time I spent onthe
internet (in last 12
months)

0.002

Yes (“Yes” on
scale)

204

2.0392

.98182

(Reject the null)

No (“No” on scale)

1604

1.8229

.90735

  H.I have tried
unsuccessfully to spend
less time on the internet
(in the last 12 months)

0.002

Yes (“Yes” on
scale)

206

2.0097

1.02167

(Reject the null)

No (“No” on scale)

1594

1.7823

.91697

of 2.5663, which shows that this is reliable for determining risk to adolescents. In the case of statement
C, ‘There are lots of things on the internet that are good for children my age’ it was decided not to reject
the null because there was a significant difference between the two because there was no significant difference (t=0.464, p<0.387). Statement D, ‘I have gone without eating or sleeping because of the internet
(in last 12 months)’ led to the decision to reject the null because of a significant difference (t=5.445,
p=<0.001). Equally, the null was rejected in the case of Statement E, ‘I have felt bothered when I cannot
be on the internet (in last 12 months)’ because there was a significant difference between the two groups
(t=2.905, p=<0.008), as was Statement F, ‘I have caught myself surfing when I’m not really interested
(in last 12 months),’ because there was a significant difference between them (t=2.522, p=<0.013).
With regards to statement G, ‘I have spent less time than I should with either family, friends or doing

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Determining the Risk of Digital Addiction to Adolescent Targets of Internet Trolling

schoolwork because of the time I spent on the internet (in last 12 months),’ the null was rejected due to
a significant difference between the groups (t=3.176, p=<0.003). Finally, the null was rejected in the
case of Statement H, ‘I have tried unsuccessfully to spend less time on the internet (in last 12 months),’
where a significant difference was found between the two groups (t=3.304, p=<0.002).
On the basis of these results, item 1 on the check-list would be an inversed version of statement B (i.e.
‘I do not know much about using the internet’), which is changed to account for the negative relationship
between the Means (t=-2.892, p=<0.008). Item 2 on the check-list would be statement D (‘I have gone
without eating or sleeping because of the internet in last 12 months’) and item 3 would be statement E
(‘I have felt bothered when I cannot be on the internet in last 12 months’). Item 4 would be statement F
(‘I have caught myself surfing when I’m not really interested in last 12 months’), item 5 would be statement F (‘I have spent less time than I should with either family, friends or doing schoolwork because
of the time I spent on the internet in last 12 months’), and item 6 would be statement H (‘I have tried
unsuccessfully to spend less time on the internet in last 12 months’). If a person, especially an adolescent, has between 5 and 6 ticks on the check-list then they are likely at risk of developing compulsive
Internet use as a response to their SDA. If the number of ticks are less than 3, then it is likely any SDA
is having a minimal effect on them, and there is little risk to them developing compulsive Internet use to
a problematic level. If their number of ticks are between 3 and 4, then the person the check-list is about
might be at a significant risk of developing SDA, which if they do is likely to give them a score of 4 to 5.

Reliability Testing
In the development of any scale, even a check list as with this study, testing its reliability is essential.
Reliability is an assessment of the degree of consistency between multiple measurements of a variable
and are three types of diagnostic measures for determining reliability (Hair, Black, Babin, Anderson, &
Tathan, 2006). The first measure is to consider each separate item, including the item total correlation
and the interim correlation. The second type of diagnostic measure is the reliability coefficient that assesses the consistency of the scale with Cronbach’s alpha. The third type is to use the reliability measures
derived for a confirmatory factor analysis such as structural equation modelling. The author chose to use
the Cronbach alpha for this study, as an SEM approach would not be suitable as there was in effect only
1 factor, and because Cronbach’s alpha is the most common and accepted method for testing reliability
(Field, 2005). In the analysis of the data a Cronbach alpha of 0.710 was returned which in the very good
range of outcomes, because it is known it is more difficult to get an acceptable score of 0.7 to 0.8 with
a fewer items, such as the 6 used in this study, compare to scales with 20 to 40 items that can be used
to assess SDA (Bishop, 2014b; Turner, Johnson, Beidel, Heiser, & Lydiard, 2003; Wheelwright et al.,
2006). This means that it can be argued that the scale can be reliably used to measure the outcomes of a
person needing to be screened for risk to problematic Internet use solely on the 6 items that form part of it.

IMPLICATIONS AND DIRECTIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH
This chapter has successfully devised a scale that can screen for some of the signs of digital addiction
in adolescents, in order to help the access support networks, such as under the medical or social models.
The concept of digital addiction – indicating that digital technologies are an enabler for compulsive

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behavior rather than an instigator in their own right – is an important one to have. The idea of ‘Internet
addiction,’ namely that the Internet is addictive in its own right makes little sense. The Internet is an
environment and one can’t be addicted to an environment. It would be like saying that those people who
regularly play card games in public houses have pub addiction, as opposed to a physical manifestation
of a gaming addiction. Although this chapter has empirically devised a scale for screening of digital
addiction, further research is needed to see whether it can work in a clinical setting.

DISCUSSION
It is the case that research on so-called Internet addiction and Internet trolling has been rising dramatically since the early 2010s, but until this paper there was not a scale available in the form of a simple and
quantitatively verified check-list. This paper has presented the case that compulsive use of the Internet
can be explained as a response to serotonergic‐dopaminergic asynchronicity, which is a condition that
results from re-experiencing the trauma from a psychiatric injury (i.e. a ‘bleasure’) that is stored in the
brain as a ‘phantasy,’ which is activated when a person’s brain calls upon a brain function that was accessed at the same time the trauma was experienced, which this mental block was put in to protect that
functioning.
The scale developed in this paper allows medical and other practitioners to assess the extent to which
young people are at risk of abuse on the Internet. Using data from a study of 1,828 young people aged
9-16, the study devised a 6-point checklist based on analysis using a t-test to separate those who have
been troubled by the experience of the Internet, who are at low risk, as compared to those who are at
high risk, having been troubled by the experience on the Internet. The levels of significance for the 6
items selected out of a possible 8 were between 0.00 and 0.022 and there was a Cronbach’s alpha of
0.710. This means that the checklist can be seen as a reliable means for screening young people so that
concerns are raised over their online activities. Despite this, further research is needed to test the scale
with people in older age ranges to see whether it is suitable for general use, beyond the young people it
was created using data from.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT
The data used in this study was funded by an EC Safer Internet Programme Contract, with the identifier:
SIP‐KEP‐321803. The respective sponsor was the Commission of the European Communities. This
data was collected by Sonia Livingstone of the London School of Economics and Political Sciences
(Livingstone, 2011).

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KEY TERMS AND DEFINITIONS
Bleasure: A physical or mental injury that has been sustained, which remains persistent. An example
of a bleasure is psychiatric injury.
Digital Addiction: Digital Addiction refers to the concept that people use digital technologies in
place of other habit forming activities, such as drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes, and that if they
were not using digital technologies compulsively that they would be manifesting those compulsions in
some other form.
Internet Addiction: Internet Addiction wrongly asserts that people can be addicted to the Internet
in the same way as they may a ‘one-armed-bandit’ gambling machine. In fact the Internet is an environment and not a machine in its own right.
Internet Trolling: The posting of messages on the Internet that are either provocative or offensive.
Serotonergic‐Dopaminergic Asynchronicity: Serotonergic‐dopaminergic asynchronicity (SDA)
refers to the phenomena whereby a person who has a sub-optimised prefrontal cortex is not able to effectively regulate their dopamine and serotonin levels resulting in emotional and behaviours problems.

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