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Are You Powerless Over Social Networking?

Titter all you want over Twitter addiction. The fact is, not being able to put the keyboard down is a growing concern—especially for sober addicts looking for a high. 

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When the drugs are free and your computer is the dealer... Photo via

By Laura Barcella

10/18/11

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My friend Allie knew her Internet stalking habit had gotten out of control when she had to install parental control software. Not for her kids (30 and based in San Francisco, Allie is single with no children), but for herself, to forcibly prevent her from peeking at her ex-boyfriend’s social networking profiles. “At times it felt incredibly compulsive,” she recalls. “Very much like the compulsion to drink and do drugs, before I got sober. I was thinking, ‘Don't do this; it won't end well,’ but I went ahead and did it anyway.”

Allie’s case may be extreme, but she’s far from alone. Millions of people regularly use social networking hubs like Facebook and Twitter. Many of us, too, turn to everyday mood-alterers like alcohol, drugs, food, sex, or caffeine to numb out. But just like Pinot Grigio isn’t the cause of alcoholism, the Internet itself isn’t to blame for our overreliance on it.  It’s how—and how often— websites are used that can become problematic. Some people innocently rely on social media to keep family, friends, and friendly strangers informed about their everyday lives. But in recent years, as American culture has Facebooked, Tweeted and Spotified its way into full-blown online overload, an unlucky few—some who are cross-addicted to other substances, like Allie—have become outright Internet junkies. 

As American culture has Facebooked, Tweeted and Spotified its way into full-blown online overload, an unlucky few have become outright Internet junkies.

But is it truly possible for social media hounds’ harmless web surfing habit to turn into a full-fledged addiction?  Yes, according to many psychologists. Though it’s not currently recognized by the psych bible DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), “Internet addiction disorder” is being considered for inclusion in the 2013 edition. And according to Hilarie Cash, executive director of the reSTART Internet Addiction Recovery Program in Washington state, Internet addiction is actively growing. Cash says that, according to recent stats, between six and 13% of the general population meets the criteria for Internet addiction, and among college-aged people, that number leaps from 13 to 18.5%.  

Also alarming: The link between social media consumption (or, um, overconsumption) and drug/alcohol use might be stronger than you’d suspect. According to a recent study by Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), teenagers who spend time on social networking sites are more likely to smoke, drink, and use illegal drugs than their less-connected peers. According to the study, teens who use social networking sites in a typical day are five times likelier to use tobacco (10 percent vs. two percent), three times likelier to use alcohol (26 percent vs. nine percent), and twice as likely to use marijuana (13 percent vs. seven percent) than teens who spend no time on these sites. 

Of course, not everyone who abuses substances like tobacco, alcohol, or drugs struggles with Internet addiction. Liza, a 29-year-old recovering alcoholic currently living in New York City, says she “tries to be mindful” in her use of social media. Though she logs onto Facebook and Twitter every day, she strives to practice restraint. She keeps her Twitter feed private so it won’t interfere with her job, and mainly uses Facebook to keep up with faraway friends and family in her California hometown. Liza has even found social media sites helpful for her program. “I have gotten meeting commitments covered through Facebook, and I have been able to support struggling friends who posted, in a status message, what they were going through,” she explains.

But not all addicts are as Zen about social media as Liza. Samantha, a 34-year-old addict who lives in the Bay Area, admits that she struggles to balance her Facebook, Flickr, and Instagram personas with her “real” life. “I can easily get sucked into a Facebook K-hole where I spend hours and hours of my workday clicking around on friends of friends’ pictures, reading their wall posts, and basically stalking them,” she says. “I do it to random people I’ve seen at meetings who I barely know! I just can’t seem to stop, even when I know I should.” 

Allie (she of the parental controls) describes her compulsion to Internet stalk as a breeding ground for that insidious state some of us know as “compare and despair.” “A few years ago, after a breakup, I would log in to MySpace daily and check to see if my ex had any new friends,” she remembers. “If he did, I would look through all his friends and see if the new friend was a female. If so, I would look at her pictures, silently comparing myself to her, and check their ‘walls’ for any communication that had gone on [between them].”

According to addiction-focused New York therapist Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, a alcoholics and addicts may be more prone to this kind of obsessive Internet behavior than “normal” folks—partially because of that unconscious drive to turn to external substances to soothe interior problems. As Hokemeyer explains, “At some point in their lives, the thing they became addicted to served them; it was used as a survival mechanism, and they learned to manage their emotional state from the outside in.” Sound familiar?  

When it comes to recovering from Internet addiction, the options aren’t as cut-and-dry as they are for other dependencies. Internet junkies, after all, probably aren’t thrilled at the notion of, say, never again using Google to plan a trip or look at a restaurant menu. But Hilarie Cash, executive director of the reSTART Program, says various strategies helpful in treating online addicts. The most significant (and difficult) one she’s found is a 45-day-minimum detox from all computer technology. “We try to assess if there are co-morbid conditions,” she says. “We encourage addicts to develop other interests: mindfulness and meditation, yoga, art therapy, hiking, camping. We want them to get more connected to their bodies and nature.”  

For his part, Dr. Hokemeyer suggests that Internet addicts seeking recovery should try working with a therapist to identify problem areas and “put realistic and measurable boundaries around their access”—for instance, limiting a full-fledged Facebook addict to a small, allotted amount of time each day. 

While my friend Allie still occasionally grapples with the urge to Facebook stalk, she’s learned to deal with the desire by using tools she’s learned in AA. “I reached out for help, talked to friends and sponsors about it, and prayed for the obsession to be removed,” she explains. “I recognized that I was in self will and that I didn’t believe my Higher Power wanted me to feel badly.”

(Though, who knows—her HP just might want her to “like” his fan page.) 

Laura Barcella has written for Salon, The Village Voice, ElleGirl, NYLON, and Bust. She is the editor of the forthcoming anthology Madonna and Me, a collection of women-penned personal essays about Madonna.

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