By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.
Is this just having fun or is it internet addiction?
How much internet usage is a problem?
When it comes to behaviors how can you tell when enough is too much?
We know that behaviors can become problems. Some like pathological gambling can destroy lives and families but when is a behavior an addiction?
Is internet addiction a real addiction?
It would appear so. Brain scan studies show that in both drug-addicted individuals and people with problematic internet usage the same areas of the brain light up when they think about their preferred activity. The brain has changed in response to their habit and has resulted in characteristic symptoms of addiction.
The hallmarks of addiction are; building up a tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, excessive involvement with the drug or activity and continued participation in the activity despite negative consequences. We should also mention here that cravings for the drug or activity are the factor that maintains the addiction.
Let’s look at how these characteristics will manifest in someone with an internet addiction. We think there is a difference between high levels of computer usage and a true internet addiction. Computers and the internet have become parts of modern life. They can have good and bad aspects. Many jobs now require the use of the computer, often for many hours per day. We use computers and the internet for business, person and social applications. Some usages have more risk of becoming a problem than others.
Internet addiction is one of these “behavioral addictions” or compulsions that are poorly understood and little researched.
First, the 4 characteristics of addiction applied to excessive internet usage. Then some information on possible psychiatric connections.
People who become addicted to the internet need more and bigger computers, more software, and the time they spend on the computer continues to increase. They may spend excessive (for their income) amounts of money and time on their computer activates.
When unable to do their usual activities the internet addict will become angry, fearful, anxious or depressed. Should their connection fail they are unable to do other activities in the place of their internet routine.
3. Excessive usage.
What is excessive is a matter of perspective. Most addicts can’t see that their activity has become excessive until it has become too late. Neglect of other areas of the life is a good sign this activity is becoming excessive.
Does the internet user stay up too late and then are they tired all the next day. Does this time online interfere with their job, school work or family life? Is this person neglecting their role responsibilities?
All of these are signs that the use of the internet has become excessive.
4. Continued use despite negative consequences.
The internet addict will begin to lie to others around them about their usage and the nature of their online activities. We have talked elsewhere, or will soon about how this lying may be a sign that the person is using the internet in the service of another addiction, like an affair, gambling or a sexual addiction. The lying we are talking about here is not about covering up the why of their usage but this lie is about covering up the extent of their usage.
Poor school work or job performance are common results of excessive internet usage. Chronic fatigue with a loss of motivation and interest in other activities occurs. Social isolation, with few friends and few offline activities, also occur.
Psychiatric considerations and co-morbidity.
So why should we be concerned about an internet addiction? They could be addicted to books (an incurable condition for a writer.) As long as they do not lose their job or family, what’s the harm?
Internet addiction may be a symptom of other disorders rather than a primary disorder. Internet addiction coexists with several other serious mental health problems. Those with an internet addiction often have depression from mild all the way to serious. Anxiety is a common co-morbidity and may be of the generalized, over-anxious, variety or the social phobia type.
Among those with excessive internet usage, alcohol and marijuana abuse is common. Addictions travel in flocks and switching one addiction for another is commonly reported in recovery circles.
Internet addiction is not yet a recognized disorder in the DSM. One variation Internet Gaming Disorder has been proposed for further study. The mental health community is still not quite sure how to understand this internet addiction thing.
Some authors have proposed that this may be a variant of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD.) Use of the internet may be a way of reducing anxiety in those with OCD. Other authors have noted that the anxiety in Internet addiction is more like that in drug addiction, the addict becomes anxious when they are unable to get the thing that is the object of their addiction.
Internet addiction may be another of those catch-all groups that are really a set of similar symptoms that represent several distinct disorders. A cough can be a symptom of many illnesses and what if excessive internet usage is really a symptom of many differing mental health disorders?
Three variations of internet addiction appear likely
1. Internet Gaming.
This variant is the need for the repetitive playing of games and racking up points. They may be playing against others online or this may be a solitary activity. Research currently distinguishes this from internet gambling. Gambling Disorder (formerly called Pathological Gambling) seems the same online and offline and pathological gamblers move between various settings and games of chance.
2. Cyber Sex.
This appears to fit in with other sexual issues. It is distinguished from the use of the internet to facilitate affairs or other crimes. This can vary from sex chat and sexting all the way to a pornography addiction. In a cybersex addiction, the goal is to get sexual gratification online rather than the goal of meeting a real person offline.
3. Obsessive use of the internet for social contact.
This includes frequent usage of emails, text messages, and social media sites. The internet addict may become obsessed with how many friends they have on a particular site, what others are saying and so on. This reliance on the internet for human contact may lead to a lack of social skills and few friends when in offline situations.
One serious concern with excessive reliance on the internet for social contact is the risk of pain caused by online stalking and cyberbullying which can result in suicide or other emotional crises.
Hope this brief summary of the problem of internet addiction and the link to other behavioral disorders may be helpful to someone. As always appropriate comments are welcome.
Staying connected with David Joel Miller
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