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LCSW
Clinical Social Worker/Therapist

So how can you differentiate between normal internet use and internet addiction?

Well, you look for behavioral warning signs that indicate a problem, like any of the 5 red-flags listed below.

1. Failure to Manage Time

One important sign of internet addiction is the inability to manage internet/non internet time. Some consequences of this can be:

  • Failure to meet appointments, or to come or class to work on time.
  • Repeatedly failing to complete projects because you are overwhelmed.
  • Double-booking appointments (can be signs of trying to get too much done in too little time.)

Although most of us try to get too much done in too little time, this should not be because hours and hours of time have been consumed by nonproductive internet activities.

2. Missed Sleep

Since internet addiction is a solitary and private activity it is easily engaged in just before going to bed. But the lure of "one more move" or “one more site" can easily push off bedtime. Or, if the addiction involves communication with people across the globe, such as with many multiplayer games, nighttime might just be the best time for those communications...

If late night internet sessions consistently eat into sleeping time, you may have a problem.

3. Missed Meals

Although most people really do enjoy food, meals are easily pushed off in favor of addictions. In today's world, with microwavable meals and disposable utensils family meals have become a rarity. That only means it is much easier for a person to forgo a nutritious meal without anybody noticing. However, a regular diet of coffee and cake for breakfast and instant soup for lunch and dinner is another telltale sign that something is amiss.

4. Trouble with School or Employers

Similar to other addictions, one of the first obvious signs is when there is inexplicable trouble in school or at work. When a good student’s or employee’s performance suddenly goes down, red flags should be going up. While you might at first suspect drugs - one needs to be aware that any addiction can negatively affect performance.

5. Social Isolation

Social isolation can be a major problem with certain forms of internet addiction. This is especially true when the internet serves as a replacement for real-life relationships.

  • I have known people who spend four or five hours a day interacting with Flickr contacts. They do this to the point where they would rather be online that have dinner with the grandchildren.
  • Anonymous chat rooms can also constitute an extremely alluring forum for virtual social activity. How much trouble can one get into if you both remain anonymous and you never meet the people you're interacting with?

For the addict it doesn't feel like isolation at all, but if our human need to feel close to other people is fulfilled with an artificial and unnatural substitute, can this really be healthy? What then will happen with the important relationships that sustain real social life?

Obviously, this can have a significant effect on marriage and other significant relationships. Healthy intimate relationships are built on sharing and trust. If you start sharing with other people, even anonymously, even without the possibility of physical intimacy, it will become more difficult to share with that real person who is important in your life. The deterioration of trust will soon follow.

Internet Addiction Treatment

Good treatment for internet addiction has not been around for a very long time. That's obvious because internet addiction has not been around for a long time. Nonetheless, in the past 10 years there has been research and development into treating this growing phenomenon. Here are a few of these options.

Self Help

For people who recognize the problem and are willing to change here are four techniques which can be used to help change Internet habits:

  • Practice the opposite: if you recognize that you're spending too much time online it might be useful to draw up a strict schedule for using the internet. Most people have important tasks to complete while online. If you force yourself to realize that you only have a limited amount of time you're less likely to waste it on frivolous activities.
  • External stoppers: life is filled with other things besides the internet. One way of forcing yourself to get off the internet is by doing things in places where it is impossible to be online. This can include such simple things as shopping, caring for pets, visiting friends or relatives, etc. In addition, it might be helpful to set somebody else as a gatekeeper and to accept his or her decision about when you've spent enough time on the internet.
  • Setting goals: as with any other addiction, total abstinence might be too extreme and/or painful. It might be worthwhile to set more achievable goals such as a reduction of a half-hour per week in online activity. This technique has some specific advantages. It gives you a sense of control and can often prevent cravings, withdrawal, and relapse.
  • Reminder cards: The mind will often wander and return to addictive cravings throughout the day. Posting cards or reminders around your house or workplace can keep you focused on your goal of reducing online activity. Write on little cards reminders of what you might be missing, such as lost time with family, or that which you need to gain, such as a 3.6 GPA.

Treatment and Support Options

Support Groups

Self help techniques might not be enough. As with every process of "going sober", specialized social support might be necessary. Not surprisingly, there are online social support groups for internet addiction. Living in the 21st century it would be counterproductive to preach complete abstinence from the internet. Rather, you need to learn to use it in a productive way and support groups can help with this.

Family Therapy

For many people, it is important to incorporate family therapy into the process of recovering from internet addictions. This is especially true when the addiction has influenced important relationships within the family structure.

In big cities there are family therapists who specialize in the impact of the internet on couples and families.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Internet Addiction

When professional therapy is indicated the current treatment of choice is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Internet Addiction (CBT-IA).

In CBT the focus is on changing thought patterns which reinforce and sustain negative behaviors. CBT- IA consists of three stages of therapy.

1. In the first stage you focus on reducing the time you spend online. This is a highly behavioral methodology often employing such things as a 'Daily Internet Log' and restrictive measures such as programs like Net Nanny or Cyber Patrol. Just as in eating addictions, the goal is not to prevent eating completely, in CBT-IA the goal is to restrict usage to a reasonable and healthy rate.

2. The second phase looks a lot more like traditional cognitive behavioral therapy. You are taught techniques to avoid thoughts that encourage addictive online behavior. With proper exploration the therapist and client might realize that there is an underlying thought like, "I am worthless off-line, but online I am wonderful." These types of thoughts are confronted and restructured.

Of course, dealing with denial is a major factor. Just like denial is a major factor in every other type of addiction it is certainly important when dealing with internet addictions. Such thoughts like, "It's not the internet, it's the stress in my life which is a problem," give the addict an excuse to spend so much time online that he or she has no time or strength to deal with the real problems. This type of thinking is also directly confronted and restructured.

3. The third phase of CBT-IA is called, Harm Reduction Therapy. In this phase the social and psychological factors which contributed to the development of the addiction in the first place are addressed. This might include relationship problems, depression, occupational problems, social problems, or even psychiatric issues. While each one of these might be a focus of therapy in its own right, within CBT-IA they are addressed in relationship to the internet addiction. A well-trained and experienced CBT-IA therapist will address all these issues while also focusing on the individual's strengths and positive characteristics.

See below for further reading ideas.

References
  • 1. Chou, C., Condron, L., and Bellin, J. C. (2005). A review of the research on internet addiction. Educational Psychology Review, 17(4), 363-388.
  • 2. Wylie, M. S. (2010). The www.addiction. Psychotherapy Networker, 34(5). 30-59.
  • 3. Young, K. S. (2011). CBT-IA: The first treatment model for internet addiction. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly, 25(4), 304-312.
About the author Ari Hahn:
I am a professional helper since 1976 and an LCSW since 1991. I have specialized in survivors of trauma. Presently I also have an on-line therapy and coaching practice where I also specialize in helping families and loved ones of ex-abused people. I also am a professor at TCI College in NYC.
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Page last updated Jun 13, 2013

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