Internet addiction is a growing problem and harm stemming from excessive computer use has garnered the attention and concern of experts across the U.S.
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What Is an Internet Addiction?
Today, internet and computer use are ingrained in contemporary society and have changed the way we live our lives more than any other technological medium yet. Despite this, we still know relatively little about the effects of internet addiction on our psychological functioning, mental health, and general well-being. Just last year, data from the Pew Research Center showed that 77% of Americans connect to the internet on a daily basis. While many believe that surfing the web or binging cat videos on YouTube is a relatively harmless act, there are some people who spend so much of their time using a computer or on the internet that it has begun to interfere with their daily lives. When an action or desire becomes a hindrance, taking precedence over the most important aspects of one’s life – relationships, work, school – it can become classified as an addiction.
Internet addiction is yet to be listed in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (commonly referred to as the DSM-5). However, a 2-year study funded by The National Institutes of Health may change that. Beginning in August of 2017, the study could deliver sufficient evidence that problems stemming from excessive internet use deserve serious attention from U.S. mental health and psychiatric communities. Professionals that do recognize internet addiction tend to classify it as either an obsessive-compulsive disorder or an impulse control disorder to aid treatment. Internet addiction is also called compulsive computer use, pathological internet use, and internet dependence.
5 Types of Internet Addiction
Internet addiction is a broad term that covers a range of behaviors and impulse-control problems involving internet, personal computer, and mobile technology. While there is yet no officially accepted criteria to diagnose an internet addiction, researchers have identified 5 subcategories of specific types of computer and internet addictions.
A Cybersex addiction is one of the more self-explanatory internet addictions. It involves online pornography, adult websites, sexual fantasy/adult chat rooms, and XXX web-cam services among others. An obsession with any of these services can be harmful to one’s ability to form real-world sexual, romantic, or intimate relationships. Treatment options are available for those with cybersex addictions, typically in the form of intervention followed by ongoing inpatient or outpatient therapy.
Net compulsions concern interactive activities online that can be extremely harmful, such as online gambling, trading stocks, online auctions (such as E-bay), and compulsive online shopping. These habits can have a detrimental impact on one’s financial stability and disrupt job-related duties. Spending or losing excessive amounts of money can also cause stress in one’s relationships. With instant and easy access to online casinos and stores, it is easy for those who are already susceptible to a gambling or spending addiction to get hooked online.
Cyber (Online) Relationship Addiction
Cyber or online relationship addicts are deeply involved with finding and maintaining relationships online, often forgetting and neglecting real-life family and friends. Typically, online relationships are formed in chat rooms or different social networking sites but can occur anywhere you can interact with people online. Often, people who pursue online relationships do so while concealing their real identity and appearance – this modern phenomena led to the creation of the term “catfish.”
After being consumed by an online social life and persona, a person may be left with limited social skills and unrealistic expectations concerning in-person interactions. Many times, this leads to an inability to make real-world connections, in turn, making them more dependent on their cyber relationships. Counseling or therapy is typically required to treat this addiction and ensure lasting behavioral changes.
Compulsive Information Seeking
The internet provides users with a wealth of data and knowledge. For some, the opportunity to find information so easily has turned into an uncontrollable urge to gather and organize data. In some cases, information seeking is a manifestation of pre-existing, obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Commonly, compulsive information-seeking can also reduce work productivity and potentially lead to job termination. Depending on the severity of the addiction, treatment options can range from different therapy modalities – which target changing compulsive behavior and developing coping strategies – to medication.
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Computer or Gaming Addiction
Computer addiction, sometimes referred to as computer gaming addiction, involves on- and offline activities that can be done with a computer. As computers became more widely available, games such as Solitaire, Tetris, and Minesweeper were programed into their software. Researchers quickly found that obsessive computer game playing was become a problem in certain settings. Office employees would spend excessive amounts of time playing these games causing a notable decrease in productivity. Today, not only are these classic games still available, but so are thousands of new ones. Computer addiction is the oldest type of internet/computer addiction, and it is still prevalent and harmful today.
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Signs and Symptoms of an Internet Addiction
In 1998, Dr. Kimberly Young developed “The Internet Addiction Test.” It includes a 20-item questionnaire that is administered to the client by a proctor. These items include statements such as:
- How often do you find that you stay online longer than you intended?
- How often do others in your life complain to you about the amount of time you spend online?
- How often do you find yourself anticipating when you will go online again?
Clients can answer with one of these 5 responses: Not Applicable, Rarely, Occasionally, Frequently, Often, and Always. Each answer has a numerical value assigned to it. At the end of the test, all the answer’s values are added together, and a score is calculated and used to determine the presence or severity of an internet addiction.
Other internet addiction tests have also gained popularity. In 2005, Dr. Keith W. Beard published an article in which he proposed 8 characteristics that described having an internet use disorder. If 5 or more of the traits describe the subject, they would be diagnosed with an internet addiction. They are:
- Is preoccupied with the internet (thinks about previous online activity or anticipates next online session).
- Needs to use the internet with increasing amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction.
- Has made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop internet use.
- Has stayed online longer than originally intended.
- Is restless, moody, depressed, or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop internet use.
- Has jeopardized or risked the loss of a significant relationship, job, or educational or career opportunity because of the internet.
- Has lied to family members, therapist, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the internet.
- Uses the internet as a way of escaping from problems or of relieving a dysphoric mood (e.g., feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, depression).
Effects of an Internet Addiction
An internet addiction can have many harmful effects on a person, both physically and emotionally. Body aches, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, insomnia, vision problems, and weight gain/loss are just some of the physical problems one may suffer as a result of an internet addiction. Emotional effects may include depression, dishonesty, anxiety, social isolation, aggression, and mood swings.
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Internet Addictions and Mental Illness
A 2016 research study found that those who were determined to have an internet addiction (using Dr. Young’s Internet Addiction Test) had significantly more trouble dealing with their day-to-day activities. This included life at home, work/school-related duties, and their ability to socialize in the real-world. Individuals with these types of addictions also exhibited significantly higher amounts of depression and anxiety symptoms.
There is debate over whether a computer, cell phone, or online addiction is the cause or consequence of such mental health issues. ADHD symptoms, such as difficulty planning ahead, poor time management, and higher-than-average levels of attentional impulsivity are also common among those with an internet addiction. Additionally, those with an addiction are more likely to have a co-occurring disorder that requires special care and treatment.
Treating an Internet Addiction
There is no one specific treatment that should be used to address an internet addiction. Depending on the severity of the addiction and the behaviors of the individual, different types of treatment would be effective. If someone you know is suffering from excessive internet abuse, the first step is to plan an intervention or to express your concerns with their behaviors. Therapy is generally incorporated into the treatment of addiction along with any co-occurring disorders that may be present such as anxiety, depression, and/or obsessive-compulsive disorder. In some cases, medication may be used to manage symptoms of these underlying mental illnesses or to control intrusive thoughts about going online if other treatment options were not effective.
If you or a loved one is struggling with an Internet addiction, speak to a treatment provider today.