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Do You Find Stress Relief Online? If So You Might Find Addiction As Well

Digital life is less stressful and complicated than the real world. Here's the FAQ on its potential costs.

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By Liz Karter

08/28/14

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Have you ever caught yourself in a moment of stress, picking up your smart phone and checking Facebook, Twitter or getting cravings to go to the next level on Candy Crush? If so, join the club of thousands feeling that living life online is a lot less stressful and complicated than living life in the real world. 

If life online offers some escapism, isn’t that a good thing? 

The answer to that question is complex. Yes, we all need a little healthy escapism when life gets tough, but through my work I have learned to be concerned about any behavior that starts to take up a little too much space in our lives and I do have concerns about the amount of time we spend online. Working in the field of addiction I have learned that there is a very fine line between healthy escapism and spending so much time out of the real world that we lose the skills and the desire to come back.

If we immediately scroll through our online social networks when we are feeling bad, we are absorbing our thoughts and suppressing our feelings, just as we do in addiction. 

More traditional ways of forgetting our troubles might be pouring a glass of wine, smoking a cigarette or self medicating with recreational drugs. We all well know the glass of wine can become damaging if it leads to bottle after bottle, the cigarette if we need so many that our health suffers in our attempt to soothe our thoughts and feelings. And yet we are less aware of the potential danger of the seemingly innocent hour spent online. If that hour multiplies and becomes hours that we cannot afford from our real world commitments, if it causes us to be preoccupied and distant with partners, our real world feels like a battle ground and we keep running from reality and into the comparative fantasy of a life online. 

In fact, if we take the elements that time online offers: complete absorption, escape from troubling thoughts and feelings, the appealing ability to lose ourselves, track of time and sense of reality, all we would need to do would be to add the ability to win or lose money and we would have the ingredients that mixed together make addiction to online gambling. Despite what we might imagine, gambling addiction is not all about winning money; that obsession is usually a consequence of the addiction. Once vast sums have been lost the person with the addiction will then become desperate to win back their losses. The initial drive to the online gambling addiction is the self-soothing quality offered by staring at a smart phone, a tablet, a computer screen and focusing just on that activity. Just for that time all problems seem to disappear and the person playing becomes a disembodied version of themselves, free from all anxieties or depression caused by life problems. Too much time, too much money spent eventually only causes an additional set of problems. Then it is increasingly tempting to escape the now double-trouble in the world of online gambling addiction. 

Do we begin to see worrying similarities with gambling addiction and too much time spent online?

Understandably we might argue that a little too much time spent online is not going to have the devastating financial costs that gambling addiction has. True, but what I have heard so many times from gamblers in recovery is that it is not the lost money that causes the most regret. Lost money can be recouped, but lost time cannot. Losing time online is all too easy and along with it, losing our life skills, our sense of self and ability for authentic relating.

We are socializing more than ever before. Online we are less inhibited, seemingly less reclusive, personal information less exclusive than it has ever been. But are we really relating healthily?

Our online profile picture tends to present an airbrushed version of ourselves. In just the same way that we choose our most flattering profile picture, it is easier to choose the most flattering version of personality to present to our hundreds of online friends. The smiley face icon can hide our low mood, low self esteem or empty existence. We can pretend to others and even ourselves that our lives are much more fulfilling and interesting than they really are. We can be the person we wish we were rather than the person we actually are.  If we can continue to play ‘let’s pretend that life is okay’, when actually it is not, it gives us less motivation to make positive life changes. If we do not make positive changes, then why would we not prefer to keep living most of our life online?

Do our hundreds of Facebook friends really give us a social network we need to stay mentally and emotionally healthy? 

It can seem that way; which of us does not enjoy that feeling when someone has "liked" our post, or retweeted our thoughts? It makes us feel validated, accepted, a part of a community. These are all good healthy things to feel. And yet, maybe some of us find ourselves craving that feeling, perhaps feeling a little disappointed and agitated if our phone stops notifying us that we are liked and that we belong? If the likes and retweets give us a high, when we do not receive them we will feel low. If we find ourselves then seeking out that high from the same source, checking our social networking sites more frequently, putting out more and more tweets, more posts to try to get that high, maybe preoccupied with social media when at work or with friends and family, we are at risk of developing addiction.

We are talking about developing online addiction, but can living our lives online lead to addiction to other things? 

In my professional opinion and experience, yes it can. If Twitter constantly feeds us the thoughts of others, we spend less time contemplating our own, and so less time cultivating a strong individual identity which we all need to deal with life and relationships. If we cannot deal with the world we are vulnerable to addiction of all kinds to escape from it. 

Our online social networks often are people of similar world view and so do not challenge too much our opinions, values and morals in the same way that meeting within a group of real, live, randomly selected individuals might. If we live our lives mostly within these comfortable online social groups we have less opportunity to learn to deal with challenge and conflict and through doing so develop good strong relational skills. Many relationships online tend to be those who we might count as low risk relationships. Much of the time, we have never met our Facebook friends, so we have less invested in these friendships, so less to lose.  If when somebody upsets us online, all we have to do is press the ‘unfriend’ button, but we lose the opportunity to develop relational skills of endings and finding closure we need in the real world. And we absolutely do need to develop them. If we cannot allow ourselves the risk of being in real relationships with all the risk of abandonment, conflict and rejection, we also do not allow ourselves the sources of attachment, comfort and acceptance from those potential supportive life partners and community groups. Without those sources of support, we do not have sources for healthy expression of feeling. If we do not have sources for expression of feeling, we look for means of suppressing feeling. We are then are much more vulnerable to looking for somewhere to hide from our thoughts and feelings, be it in the bottom of the wine bottle, in drug abuse, in gambling or online addiction.

So how do we stay safe?

Next time you feel low or stressed and find yourself picking up your phone to scroll your social network feeds- pick up the phone and call or meet a friend instead. The danger lies in imagining that relationships online nourish us in the way that healthy real life relationships can and so we stop growing real world friends who truly like us for our entire profile – both the airbrushed and the more candid shots. Family and friendships providing healthy, real life social networks can stop us seeking solace from the sometimes messy reality of real life, in the sanitized online version. A life led in part online can be fun, informative and promote a wider world view and need not be a pathway to addiction. The art is to keep it in balance so it does not narrow down our lives and suck us right through the screen. If we continually create a real life world in which we actually want to be, we lower the risk of being lost in cyber space.

Liz Karter is an addiction expert and author of two books, specializing in gambling addiction.

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