Internet Addiction: Signs, Side Effects, and Treatment 

By The Fix staff 01/21/15

Internet Addiction: Signs, Side Effects, and Treatment 

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Internet Addiction

Are you incapable of completing tasks or living an ordinary life because of the excessive amounts of time you spend online? Do you have a family member or friend that spends their whole day on the Internet? Many people joke that everyone who owns a personal computer, notebook, tablet, or smart phone has an over-usage problem. However, Internet addiction is a serious issue and involves characteristics much more life-altering than spending ten minutes too long on Instagram. Read on for more about Internet addiction and how you or your loved one can get treatment today.

Who is Using the Internet?

PEW Research Internet Project data collected in January of 2014 revealed astounding information about the Internet usage of Americans: 87% of adults living in the United States now access and use the Internet. Similar data shows that, as of September 2012, 95% of American teenagers were online and three out of four were accessing the web through mobile devices, like cell phones and tablets.

According to that same data, the heaviest users of the Internet include youth ages 12 to 17, who have maintained the highest Internet-using population since 2004. However, in September 2012, young adults between ages 18 and 29 came neck and neck with the younger group, ages 12 -17. 

Still, Internet users vary widely and cover all age groups, races, and socioeconomic statuses. The largest group, however, based on demographic information retrieved by the United States Census Bureau from American households in 2013, consists of people who are primarily white, male, aged 18-29, who have a college education, a household income of greater than $75,000 annually, and a home in an urban geographical area.

It is these individuals who are most at risk for developing Internet addiction. 

What is Internet Addiction?

While addictions to drugs and alcohol can typically be clearly defined, Internet addiction disorder, or IAD, is still highly debated and unclear. Since the emergence and steady growth of Internet use in the 1990s, users have dealt with an expanding susceptibility for dependency. The term IAD is used broadly to describe a large array of impulse control problems and behaviors, according to the Texas State University Counseling Center.

TSU Counseling describes the term "Internet addiction" as encompassing several particular behaviors based on the focus of the addiction. They divide the addiction into the following five categories:

  • Computer-based: when a person (primarily men, children, and teenagers) becomes obsessive about playing computer games, programming software, or other computer-related tasks
  • Cyber-relationship: when friendships made online in MUDs, newsgroups, forums, and chat rooms take the place of physical socialization with friends and family members
  • Cybersexual: obsessions with adult-only chat rooms or online pornography
  • Information overload: excessive and compulsive database searches and surfing the web for information, such as constantly diagnosing oneself for a health issue based on information found online
  • Net compulsions: an addiction based on obsessive gambling, auctions, or online trading

As a result of the disagreement on the term and its implications, Internet addiction, or computer addiction, failed to gain a place in the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). Still, psychologists and researchers are attempting to shed light on this disorder and make people aware of the consequences of IAD. 

Signs of Internet Addiction

Dr. Kimberly S. Young, a licensed psychologist, founded the Center for Internet Addiction in 1995 and has since been raising awareness and developing treatment interventions for IAD. One of the first to identify IAD as a potentially debilitating problem, Dr. Young established a group of criteria  to exemplify the presence of Internet addiction. The answers to the following questions may help you or your loved one to recognize a problem for what it is.

  • Do you stay online longer than you initially intended?
  • Are you unable to control your online usage and keep urges to stay on longer at bay?
  • Do you feel particularly preoccupied with the activities you perform online and think about those activities continually, even when you are not online?
  • Do you feel the need to spend greater and greater amounts of time online to feel satisfied?
  • Do you find yourself going on the Internet simply to escape life problems or relieve feelings of guilt, helplessness, loneliness, anxiety, or depression?
  • Do you keep going back online, even after spending too much money for fees?
  • Do you feel restless or agitated when you cut down on your online time or when you stop altogether?
  • Do you experience withdrawal symptoms when you are not online such as an undesirable mood, an increase in irritability, or depression?
  • Do you lie to your loved ones and try to hide how frequently and how long you spend online?
  • Do you risk losing important relationships, affecting your job performance, or missing an educational or career opportunity due to the excessive amount of time you spend online?

According to Young, if you answered yes to four or more of the above questions then you probably meet the criteria for IAD. It is easy to fall prey to the belief that because you are not using drugs or directly hurting anyone, your Internet use is not dysfunctional. This is not true. Internet addiction is a legitimate problem that requires intervention and treatment.

Failing to seek help for this disorder may result in the loss of significant relationships or ruined chances for progress in school and work. If you think you have this problem—or if you see any of the above signs in a friend or loved one—seek out an experienced professional to help you.  

Treatment for Internet Addiction

While there is still room for improvement in the field of study surrounding Internet and computer addiction, researchers are progressing towards better and clearer diagnostic frameworks and treatment options for afflicted individuals. 

The very first step towards getting better after recognizing IAD is awareness and acceptance. Denial of the problem will not lead to positive results. Many people who have Internet addictions meet regularly with a qualified therapist or counselor. Others seek treatment in the form of support groups. Treatment plans will depend on the severity of the disorder and the difficulty required in decreasing Internet use. According to the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, few recognized psychological treatments for this disorder include:

  • Reality therapy helps clients to realize that they can take purposeful actions to overcome their addiction such as developing time-management tactics, learning alternative behaviors, and focusing on strengthening their commitment for change.
  • Motivational interviewing involves a goal-oriented method of facilitating the client's intrinsic motivation to change a problem behavior. Such techniques to impact motivation include affirmations, open-ended questions, and reflective listening. 
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)  is another effective approach for treating Internet addiction. This treatment option has been helpful in treating other addictions and impulse control disorders. Clients receive psychoeducation about the disadvantages and long-term damage associated with IAD. Furthermore, they are encouraged to develop real-life relationships, limit the amount of time they spend online, and undergo exposure interventions that strengthen their resolve for overcoming the disorder.

Inpatient Treatment for Internet Addiction

Many of these interventions are conducted on an outpatient basis, since IAD treatment is still relatively new. However, in 2013, ABC News reported that the very first hospital-based treatment facility for Internet addiction would be opening. The Behavioral Health Services Department at Bradford Regional Medical Center in Pennsylvania opened the first 10-day inpatient program for people motivated to overcome their addiction. The program includes interventions like "digital detox" in which patients are prohibited from using any device that accesses the Internet for a period of time. Psychoeducation and psychotherapy are also a part of this inpatient treatment program. 

Recovering from Internet Addiction

Once you have begun treatment for IAD, you will begin to see changes in your life that were not present before your intervention. You can tell that you are making progress with your recovery in the following ways:

  • You have regained an interest in hobbies and activities that you used to enjoy
  • You do not go over the target amount of time you have allotted to spend online in a day or week
  • You are more interested in socializing and spending time with loved ones than you are in going online
  • You use the Internet for legitimate reasons and do not stay on longer than is necessary
  • You stay within a designated budget for money spent on online activities

If you or a friend have been spending a large amount of time online and neglecting other obligations, you should get help today. There is hope for people with Internet addiction. You might find yourself in a positive recovery sooner than you think. 

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