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LCSW
Clinical Social Worker/Therapist

If you are reading this you appreciate the internet. You know how useful it can be. It can even be a life saver. Additionally, if you are reading this you probably know something about addictions. Either somebody you know or you, yourself, has experienced the cravings, denial, codependency, and social problems that are caused by addictions. But some people say that only a substance can be addictive. Alcohol, nicotine and other chemicals create a physical need that is the addiction. How can a behavior be addictive?

What Makes the Internet Addictive?

So why is the internet so addictive? What are the qualities of this ubiquitous tool that cause people to lose control?

We use the internet to enhance our social life, be it on Facebook, or through e-mails, texting, chat rooms and other applications. As mentioned above, the internet is our primary resource for information in the 21st century. As a leisure tool we have such services as Pandora, Spotify, Netflix, Flickr and countless other companies and organizations. As a virtual emotional surrogate, people use not only movies but also chat rooms, video games, virtual worlds, online support groups, etc.

These functions gain an addictive quality because of their enhanced speed and intensity - something which is not so present in the real world. This is similar to the way a drug enhances our natural ways of feeling good. A narcotic does essentially the same thing as natural endorphins, but does it much quicker and with greater intensity.

There are four areas in which the internet serves us well and these are all gateways for an addictive relationship. These are:

  1. Social functions
  2. Informational functions
  3. Leisure functions
  4. Virtual emotional functions

And there are 5 characteristics of web surfing that enhance its addiction potential. These are:

  1. Speed of satisfaction
  2. Intensity of stimulus
  3. Total accessibility
  4. Social acceptability
  5. Total privacy

Increased Speed

The speed in which people can access material make this medium extremely valuable and satisfying.

Within the confines of the cyber world instant gratification is the norm. Prior to the internet it would've taken a huge amount of time, planning and resources to visit a museum in Paris. With a high-speed connection you can satisfy an impulse to 'visit' Paris in a matter of seconds.

Instant gratification - The addictive power of immediate reinforcement is one of the most established concepts in psychology.

Intensity of Stimulus

Prior to the advent of the internet there were games in which people could imagine conquering the world. We used small plastic pieces placed on a map, and advanced with a role of the dice. Today if you want to participate in the advancing of great armies you can virtually hear and see the roar of the canons.

150 years ago, people could only listen to music if they had somebody to actually play an instrument for them. 50 years ago people walked around with transistor radios and  the tinny sound they made was merely a faint reminder of an in-person concert. Today, it is entirely possible to ride on the New York City subways and still hear every note of a deep and quiet bass guitar.

Total Accessibility

In addition to speed and intensity, the internet is ubiquitous. One can access it almost anywhere on the planet, and with the spread of WiFi and hotspots, accessing the internet is essentially free.

From Amtrak to Office Depot, you can go online without even having to pay for data - and smart phones get us online anywhere there is telephone service. We don't have to wait for the store to open or travel to some other location to satisfy our desires.

Social Acceptability

Accessing the internet is a totally acceptable behavior. This makes it easier to get addicted.

Unlike doing heroin or cocaine, there is nothing socially wrong with researching some important task or gathering the data for your next major vacation. So the basic behavior is socially acceptable.

So how deviant are you if you play "Words with Friends", or "Angry Birds"? If you spend 3 hours a day playing Words with Friends with 46 friends does that mean you're a cyber-addict? How about 4 or 6 or 8 hours...?

Total Privacy

Using the internet is usually a fairly private activity. Internet activities, even when they are interactive, are generally done in a solitary manner. One person sits down in front of a computer or smart phone or tablet and nobody else needs to be in the room.

You're doing your own thing, not bothering anybody, and nobody needs to know what you're doing.

Human Characteristics That Lead to Addiction

Some, however, insist that the internet isn't addictive, it's what you find on the internet that can be, such as pornography, or games or certain kinds of information or networking, etc.

This actually makes quite a lot of sense:

  1. Certainly a person who is addicted to internet pornography does not need the internet to get his or her daily fix
  2. And the person who is addicted to internet video games will not be satisfied by researching weather patterns
  3. And a person is addicted to researching weather patterns might not be interested in pornography or video games!

So although the internet has all the qualities that allow for addiction, we should not focus only on the internet itself. We also need to consider what it is about people that tends to get them addicted.

Fulfills Users’ Needs for Mastery and Achievement

It is perfectly healthy for people to strive for mastery and achievement. Without this drive many of us would never reach our goals or even become independently functioning adults.

We all try to teach our children to master skills and to achieve as much as they possibly can. If your daughter wants to become the mayor of the city, then she will need to master a certain set of skills such as finishing college, networking and campaigning, managing organizations, and many other things will take her many years of hard work to achieve.

  • On the other hand, she can become an all-powerful mayor by playing "SimCity".
  • Or, if she needs to have a large circle of friends and she is not socially adept, she might fulfill that need by acquiring a few thousand Facebook friends.

Provides Altered States of Consciousness

It is the aspect of altered states of consciousness that we most commonly associate with drug addictions, but there are natural and healthy ways of altering our consciousness such as 'Flow' (getting into the 'Zone'), meditation, and daydreaming. Altering consciousness is something we all enjoy.

However, with the exaggerated speed and intensity of the internet, this too becomes an experience with potentially negative consequences. In serious cases, excessive internet-drvien altereds states can change our sense of time, space, personality and personal identity.

See the footnotes section below for suggestions on further reading.

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. With training in family therapy I have focused a great deal on relationship issues. I have also 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 03, 2013

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