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It can be hard to understand technology addiction – addiction being a concept we are more comfortable associating with the consumption (and intoxication) of drugs or alcohol, but internet addiction is a very real compulsive-impulsive use disorder, similar in some ways to a gambling addiction.

The use of the internet becomes problematic when that use starts causing you problems - and many internet addicts will report negative consequences from their use.

Their drive to be online leads to deteriorating relationships, a reduction in professional or school performance and an increased likelihood of experiencing other mental health disorders.

Internet addicts will feel a need to be online, will experience symptoms of withdrawal when offline for significant periods of time, and will develop a tolerance, needing ever great periods of internet time to feel satisfied.

Although most internet addicts will spend an inordinate amount of time online, the quantity of time spent on the internet is not really relevant. One person may spend a great deal of time online, but not experience an addiction, while another may spend comparatively little, but experience problems due to their use. The way the internet negatively affects quality of life is the most important criteria for the diagnosis of an internet addiction.

The 4 Components of an Internet Addiction

Internet addictions have been segmented into certain distinct subgroups, including, gaming addiction, sexually related internet addiction and email or text messaging addiction. All three share four component features:

  1. Negative Consequences – The use of the internet or technology has negatively affected quality of life. Some examples would be - deteriorating social relationships, social isolation, poor work or school performance and arguments about time spent online.
  2. Excessive time spent online – Most internet addicts will spend a great deal of time online, will lose track of time while surfing, and will forget to meet basic needs such as for sleep or food, while on the internet.
  3. Tolerance – A need to spend more time online to feel satisfied. Also, a preoccupation with acquiring new and better technology or software.
  4. Withdrawal – Feeling irritable, depressed or angry when they cannot be online.

How Does an Internet Addiction Happen?

The internet has woven itself into the fabric of our lives, and most of us use it everyday, sometimes for hours a day – and most of us do not become addicted to it.

Scientists don’t yet understand what causes one person to succumb to addiction while another doesn't. Some speculate that people can get addicted to the social aspects of online relationships, relationships that are less threatening and that can be tempting, but are ultimately less fulfilling.

Other clinicians argue that a compulsion to use sprouts out of escapist tendencies, and that the overuse of the internet is a form of self medication from those who cannot or choose not to, face life's problems head-on.

Still others argue that in some people, internet usage creates a high similar to the high of gambling, and that we can get addicted to this pleasant sensation.

Most clinicians speculate that as research unfolds, we will see a neurological underpinning to the disorder – that the brains of internet addicts will be altered in small ways through their addiction.

What scientists do know is that people prone to other addictions are more likely to suffer an internet addiction, and that people who suffer one or more mental health disorders are far more likely to be susceptible to an internet addiction.

Signs of an Internet Addiction

Certain warning signs may indicate the presence of an internet addiction.

  • Excessive thinking about the internet when not online - Thinking about what you will do when next online, and what you have done recently. Normal internet users do not spend much time preoccupied with online activities after logging off. Lying awake in bed thinking about text messages you want to send is a warning sign.
  • Lying to others about how much time you spend online. A sign of most addictions, if you need to lie, then you have something to hide.
  • Using the internet as a way to escape from problems or negative emotions - Soothing yourself after a hard day with online time, is a dangerous habit.
  • Experiencing any significant work or school performance detriments, or relationship harms out of your online habits. If you find yourself staying up very late at night and missing work or class, for example, this could be indicative of a problem.
  • Observing the development of a tolerance - If you find that you need ever longer periods of time online to achieve satisfaction, you are developing a tolerance to the internet.
  • Cravings to use and withdrawal symptoms are a telltale sign of a problem. If you get anxious or irritable when you cannot get online, when your PDA battery dies or when you get interrupted online, you may be showing withdrawal symptoms.

What are the Risks of an Internet Addiction?

There can be a tendency to discount the seriousness of the disorder, but an internet addiction can create significant problems, can lower quality of life, and in some cases, has even proven fatal.

There have been numerous instances of people ignoring their basic needs during marathon online sessions to such a degree that they eventually died from their neglect.

Less dramatic, but still serious harms include:

  • Poor work or school performance
  • The erosion of normal social relationships
  • A lessening of social abilities to interact offline
  • Health deficits from bodily neglect
  • Financial difficulties from online activities
  • The development of co-occurring mental health disorders, such as depression, or the worsening of existing mental health disorders

What are the Treatments for an Internet Addiction?

The disorder has only gained wide attention and acceptance in the last few years, and there are not yet any comprehensive research findings on the efficacy of treatments for the disorder.

Somewhat problematically, abstinence based models are perhaps not realistic. We cannot expect someone to function in modern society while abstaining from technology.

Most treatments combine individual and group support therapy, cognitive or behavioral modification therapies and pharmacological interventions. Internet addicts are taught to use with control, and learn skills to limit their compulsions for excessive and harmful use.

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Page last updated Aug 19, 2010

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