The internet can provide access to some valuable tools, interesting stories, exciting games and informative content but, when used in excess, the internet has the ability to interfere with work, life, relationships, and daily routines. Internet addiction disorder is a potentially dangerous condition that affects individuals who spend large amounts of time online socializing with friends, playing games, gambling or just surfing the web despite the negative consequences that result from spending so much time online.
Learning about the causes and symptoms of internet addiction can help you to detect a problem early on and find help. Internet addiction does not have to cause long term consequences in your life or in the life of a loved one—help is available in the form of counseling, therapy, and social support groups that will assist you in overcoming impulsive behaviors and reducing the amount of time you or your loved one actually spends online.
What is Internet Addiction?
Internet addiction is described as an impulse control disorder, which does not involve use of an intoxicating drug and is very similar to pathological gambling. Some Internet users may develop an emotional attachment to on-line friends and activities they create on their computer screens. Internet users may enjoy aspects of the Internet that allow them to meet, socialize, and exchange ideas through the use of chat rooms, social networking websites, or "virtual communities." Other Internet users spend endless hours researching topics of interest Online or "blogging". Blogging is a contraction of the term "Web log", in which an individual will post commentaries and keep regular chronicle of events. It can be viewed as journaling and the entries are primarily textual.
Similar to other addictions, those suffering from Internet addiction use the virtual fantasy world to connect with real people through the Internet, as a substitution for real-life human connection, which they are unable to achieve normally.
Internet addiction is a growing epidemic characterized by a compulsive desire to interact online through internet gaming, gambling, cybersex, social networking or compulsive surfing of the web. According to Dr. Kimberly Young, the first psychologist to document internet addiction, these disorders are similar to impulse-control disorders. Meeting five of the following symptoms can lead to a diagnosis of internet addiction disorder:
- Feeling preoccupied with the internet. (thinking about your previous online activity or anticipating the next time you will go online)
- Feeling a desire to use the internet for increased amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction with your use of the web. (similar to tolerance that is addressed in substance abuse problems)
- Having a lack of control in efforts to stop using the internet or to cut back use.
- Feeling restless, irritable, depressed or otherwise moody when not using the internet.
- Staying online longer than you originally planned to.
- Jeopardized a job, relationship, educational opportunity or other important opportunity because of the internet.
- Lying to friends, family members or others in an effort to conceal the true amount of time that you spend online or your actual activities while online.
- Using the internet as a way of escaping reality, escaping problems or relieving a negative mood.
Types of Internet Addiction Disorders
An addiction to the internet can come in various forms. Most of the time, internet addiction is characterized by the activity that an individual is taking part in while they are online such as shopping, socializing or gaming. Internet addiction disorder includes:
- Net Compulsions – this includes compulsive gambling, gaming, shopping, trading stocks or other obsessive use of the internet that interferes with your work or home, relationships or financial well-being.
- Cybersex Addiction – compulsive use of the internet to take part in adult chat rooms, fantasy role playing sites, or to watch internet pornography.
- Cyber-Relationship Addiction – taking part in social networks, chat rooms and virtual messaging online to a point in which these online relationships mean more than real-life relationships with friends or family members.
- General Computer Addiction – obsessively playing on the computer, not necessarily online. This may include playing games such as Solitaire or programming a computer obsessively.
- Compulsive Web Surfing – obsessively surfing the web or a database to a point in which you take time from your friends, family members or regular daytime tasks at work or home.
Most internet addiction disorders are the result of cybersex, online gambling or gaming, and cyber-relationships.
Recognizing the Difference Between Healthy & Unhealthy Internet Use
Not all users who surf the web will become addicted to the internet and, excessive use of the internet is not always associated with addiction. There are many ways that the internet can be used in a healthy way and in some cases, even excessive use of the internet is safe. The internet provides us with a constant, ever-changing source of entertainment, information and tools that is accessible through computers, smart phones, tablets, laptops and other hand-held devices.
How can we recognize healthy internet use versus unhealthy use of the internet? How much internet use is too much? Is it the same for everyone?
All of these questions surrounding internet usage and the level of use that is considered healthy come into mind when thinking about internet addiction. The answers:
- Everyone is different and therefore level of internet usage that is health will differ from one person to the next. Some people rely on the internet for work and use it excessively but this does not necessarily mean that they are addicted. Others might connect with distant relatives or friends online because they cannot connect in person and this too does not necessarily mean that they are addicted.
- Unhealthy use of the internet is characterized by a person’s decision to interact online instead of in person, a decision to spend time online instead of handling work assignments or tasks, or a decision to spend time online instead of handling important tasks in life.
- Unhealthy use of the internet will often cause negative consequences to the user in terms of broken relationships or friendships, heightened anxiety in real world social situations, loss of a job due to reduced productivity or financial distress due to excessive spending online.
What are the warning signs of Internet addiction?
The symptoms of internet addiction may not be visibly present or a person may only show a few of the signs of internet addiction. There is not a set amount of time spent online each day that can be used to describe the presence of an addiction to the internet. This amount of time will be different for each individual.
Some of the warning signs of internet addiction include:
- Spending more time online than you even realize. On-line longer than originally intended. Do you often find that you wind up online longer than had anticipated? If you find that your planned time online goes from being a few minutes to actually spending hours online, you might have a problem.
- Repeated, unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back or stop Internet use. Feelings of restlessness, moodiness, depression, or irritability when attempting to cut down use of the Internet.
- Isolating yourself from friends or family members to spend time online. Do you spend more time socializing online than you do in real life? You might have an addiction to the internet if you are isolating yourself from friends or family members in order to spend time online.
- Becoming defensive about your time spent online. If you feel like you have to be defensive about the time that you spend online or you feel like you have to lie to your friends or family members about what you are doing online than you might have a problem.
- Difficulty completing tasks at work or at home because you spend too much time surfing the web. Jeopardized or risked loss of significant relationships, job, educational or career opportunities because of Internet use. If you have trouble focusing on your priorities or you find that your time online has made you slack on your tasks at work or at home you you may be suffering from an internet addiction.
- Euphoric feelings when involved with internet activities. Do you use the internet to reduce stress, gain sexual gratification or excitement? If you use the internet to boost your mood or to feel better you may have a problem.
- Preoccupation with the Internet. Thoughts about previous on-line activity or anticipation of the next on-line session.
- Use Internet to escape from problems or to relieve a dysphoric mood. (e.g. Feelings of hopelessness, guilt, anxiety, depression.)
What are the Causes of Internet Addiction?
People become addicted to the internet for a number of different reasons. Most of the time, the urge to compulsive use the internet is the result of a desire to manage unpleasant feeling such as depression, anxiety, stress or loneliness. Some feel socially inept in the real world and turn to social media interaction as a means of feeling close to people, while others may lose themselves online in an effort to temporarily feel better. Unfortunately, the internet, when used compulsively, can lead to many consequences.
Some causes of internet addiction include:
- Self-medication for a mental health disorder. Many people use the internet to mask anxiety, depression, or other mental illness.
- Information addicts. Some people have an intense hunger for knowledge and the internet provides immediate access to tons of information that can be very attractive for information addicts.
- Anxiety or social disorders. Some people have anxiety when they are face to face with people or suffer from other social disorders that make it difficult for them to interact in real life but easier to interact online.
- Loneliness. Many people, especially those who do not have a companion, interact online to fulfill a void that causes them to feel lonely.
- Shifting from a real world addiction. Many people who suffer from a real world addiction to shopping or gambling will shift their addictions to an online version such as internet gambling or excessive shopping online.
Effects of Internet Addiction
In many ways, internet addiction can be compared to an addiction to drugs or alcohol in that, internet addiction causes a desire to use the internet more and more in order to produce a satisfactory effect. This is similar to the way an alcoholic may need to drink more alcohol in order to feel the benefits of the substance or the way that a drug addict may use more drugs in an effort to produce the same “high.” Internet addicts become dependent on the use of cyberspace in order to feel normal.
Internet addicts struggle to control their behaviors and often experience great despair over their consistent failure to escape their addictive behaviors. A loss of self-esteem and a burning desire to escape can lead the addict further into their addiction sending them into a whirlwind of social anguish, relationship failure and emotional pain. In the end, the internet addiction will cause a sense of powerlessness for the addict.
Internet addiction results in personal, family, academic, financial, and occupational problems that are characteristic of other addictions. Impairments of real life relationships are disrupted as a result of excessive use of the Internet. Individuals suffering from Internet addiction spend more time in solitary seclusion, spend less time with real people in their lives, and are often viewed as socially awkward. Arguments may result due to the volume of time spent on-line. Those suffering from Internet addiction may attempt to conceal the amount of time spent on-line, which results in distrust and the disturbance of quality in once stable relationships.
Some suffering from Internet addiction may create on-line personas or profiles where they are able to alter their identities and pretend to be someone other than himself or herself. Those at highest risk for creation of a secret life are those who suffer from low-self esteem feelings of inadequacy, and fear of disapproval. Such negative self-concepts lead to clinical problems of depression and anxiety.
Many persons who attempt to quit their Internet use experience withdrawal including: anger, depression, relief, mood swings, anxiety, fear, irritability, sadness, loneliness, boredom, restlessness, procrastination, and upset stomach. Being addicted to the Internet can also cause physical discomfort or medical problems such as: Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, dry eyes, backaches, severe headaches, eating irregularities, (such as skipping meals), failure to attend to personal hygiene, and sleep disturbance.
Psychological Effects of Internet Addiction Disorder may include:
· Feelings of guilt
· Feelings of Euphoria when using the Computer
· Inability to Prioritize or Keep Schedules
· No Sense of Time
· Avoidance of Work
· Mood Swings
· Boredom with Routine Tasks
Physical Effects of Internet Addiction Disorder may include:
· Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
· Poor Nutrition (failing to eat or eating in excessively to avoid being away from the computer)
· Poor Personal Hygiene (e.g., not bathing to stay online)
· Neck Pain
· Dry Eyes and other Vision Problems
· Weight Gain or Loss
How can someone get help?
The first step is to determine if there is a problem. If you do not believe you have a problem, you are not likely to seek treatment. One of the overarching problems with the Internet is that there is often no accountability and no limits. You are hidden behind a screen – and some things that you may say or do online are things you would never do in person.
There is debate in the literature whether treatment is necessary in the first place. Some believe Internet Addiction Disorder to be a “fad illness” and suggest that it usually resolves itself on its own. Studies have show that self-corrective behavior can be achieved and successful. Corrective behaviors include software that controls the Internet use and types of sites that can be visited – with the majority of professionals in agreement that total abstinence from the computer is not an effective method of correction.
Some professionals argue that medications are effective in the treatment of Internet Addiction Disorder – because if you are suffering from this condition, it is likely that you are also suffering from an underlying condition of anxiety and depression. It is generally thought that if you treat the anxiety or depression, the Internet Addiction may resolve in step with this treatment approach. Studies have shown that anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications have had a profound affect on the amount of time spent on the Internet – in some cases decreasing rates from 35+ hours a week to 16 hours a week. Physical activity has also been indicative of effective in increasing serotonin levels and decreasing dependency on the Internet.
Some of the more common psychological treatments of Internet Addiction Disorder include:
· Individual, group, or family therapy
· Behavior modification
· Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)
· Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
· Equine Therapy
· Art Therapy
· Recreation Therapy
· Reality Therapy
Because of the prevalence of the disorder in the general population, treatment centers and programs have started to pop up in the US and across the globe. In some cases, electro-shock therapy was used to wean individuals off the Internet – this method has since been banned.
A Certified Addictions Counselor trained in identification and treatment of Internet addiction can effectively perform an assessment to determine what level of care is most appropriate.
There are many steps that you can take to reduce impulsive behaviors and get your internet usage under control. Many of the ways that you can get help for internet addiction can actually be taken on by you individually without the need for treatment.
Take these steps to get your internet usage under control:
- Get help for any mental health problems that may be contributing to your compulsive use of the internet. If you suffer from depression, stress, anxiety or other mental health problems that are contributing to your desire to self-medication by using the internet, get help!
- Develop coping skills. If you use the internet as a way to cope with stress or to deal with other emotions, you’ll need to develop coping skills in order to reduce your urges to use the internet. Instead of resorting to the internet as a method of coping with stress or anger or other emotions, develop skills that will help you to cope with these emotions without the internet.
- Get support. You’ll need an extensive support network to help you through the difficult times when you are most vulnerable and susceptible to using the internet. Your support network may consist of friends, family members, co-workers, community groups, and social support groups as well as your counselor or therapist.
- Log your time. One way that you can reduce the amount of time that you spend online is to actually keep a log of the time that you do spend online. Keep track of the time of day that you log onto the internet, how long you spend and any emotions that were present prior to your use of the internet or during your internet use. You can even log your activity online so that you can review your log to determine emotions that may have triggered a particular activity or impulsive behavior.
- Set a timer. You can reduce the amount of time that you spend online by setting a timer before you go online and making a commitment to yourself to get off of your computer when the timer goes off. You should also make a commitment to turn your computer off at a particular time each day to allow for interaction with family or to handle other tasks.
- Substitute internet usage with healthy activities. Instead of going online, take a walk, read a book, call a friend or find another way to fill the time with a healthy activity.
Methods of Internet Addiction Treatment
Many different options for treatment exist to assist those who cannot cope with or overcome their internet addiction on their own.
If self-help for internet addiction doesn’t work for you, consider these internet addiction treatment options:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy – providing methods of changing compulsive thoughts that result in poor behavior into positive thoughts and reactions, cognitive-behavioral therapy can help to change the perceptions that you have regarding your internet use. This method of therapy is effective at reducing anxiety, eliminating stress or alleviating depression.
- Support Groups – while there may not be as many support groups for those suffering from internet addiction as there are for those suffering from substance abuse or a gambling addiction, there are often alternatives. For instance, if you tend to spend your time online gambling, you can take part in Gamblers Anonymous, or if you tend to spend your time watching pornography, Sex Addicts Anonymous may be an alternative social support option.
Helping an Individual who is Addicted to the Internet
If you think you know someone who is addicted to the internet, there are steps you can take to help that individual overcome their addiction.
Follow these times to help someone who is addicted to the internet:
- Manage your own time online to show your loved one the right ways.
- Help the individual to find friends and social support
- Help them get involved in other activities that aren’t online
- Encourage counseling and therapy
- Help them manage their time online by keeping a log of internet usage
Preventing Internet Addiction in Children and Teens
In today’s society where the use of the internet is present in schools, at home and on the go, children and teens are subjected to a whole new potential for internet addiction that was not necessarily present for adults until recently. Preventing internet addiction in children and teens can be more difficult that you may think. As a parent, there is a fine line between the level of internet usage that is acceptable and what is not for a child or teen.
Follow these tips to prevent internet addiction in children and teens:
- Limit internet usage to include minimal use for social interaction.
- Internet use should focus on the need to use the internet for school assignments and research.
- Limit internet gaming
- Monitor internet use and set boundaries
- Keep internet usage restricted to specific areas of the home
- Talk to your child about anxiety, depression, school, and other potential triggers that may be causing additional internet use
- Seek help form a doctor, friend or professional if your child seems to be spending too much time online