What is Internet Addiction?

by Debra L. Moore, Ph.D.

First, let's talk about addiction in general.

We usually think about addictions as involving chemicals - chemicals such as alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs - drugs to which we can become tolerant - drugs that can create a physiological dependence. But most psychologists agree that any type of behavior that is stimulating or rewarding can become addictive. Any behavior that provides reinforcement or reward can become a habit or a compulsion, whether it is gambling, sex, video games, day-trading, food, wine, or beanie babies. When a behavior becomes more than a passion, when it becomes more than just a compulsion - and when it becomes harmful or maladaptive - we call it an addiction.

Sometimes we dismiss evidence of addiction (like with sex or gambling) by saying that the addiction is "merely psychological." This is not, however, a relevant distinction. Research has shown that a "psychological addiction" can be just as powerful as one that is based on a physiological process, and that "psychological addictions" actually involve chemical and biological changes in the brain.

How do you know when a habit is an addiction?

Signs that an addiction may be present include:

  • an inability to stop a behavior in spite of severe consequences

  • a persistent pursuit of the behavior even when it means neglecting other important aspects of one's life, or betraying one's value system

  • when there are mood changes or altered states of consciousness associated with the behavior

  • when you need "more and more" of the experience in order to obtain the same degree of satisfaction

What makes the internet addicting?

People can become addicted to almost any behavior, but there are some particular characteristics of internet use which can make it addictive. These include:

  • the presence of immediate reinforcement or gratification

  • a quality of concentrated focus or "hyperfocus" while engaged in the behavior

  • an emotional attachment to the activity

  • easy availability of the substance or activity

  • anonymity, or the ability to hide the behavior from others

The internet can have all of the above qualities. Immediacy of reinforcement is present whether someone is playing online games, engaged in online chats, or web surfing. Many users find the experience one of extreme hyperfocus, frequently to the point of losing track of significant blocks of time.

Especially when cyber-relationships or cybersex is involved, an emotional attachment develops very rapidly and intensely. Others can develop an emotional attachment in terms of having their identity, either professional or socially, heavily invested in their computer or programming skills.

Easy availability is a characteristic of the internet both in terms of it's access, low cost, 24 hour availability, and the fact that it can be accessed from just about anywhere. Often used in the privacy of one's home, it allows for hidden or false identities and faceless interactions. Unlike many addictions, which leave signs via physical symptoms or tangible proof of activity, when the computer is turned off, no outward signs of past use remain.

Are some people more likely than others to become addicted?

Generally, addiction is an equal opportunity phenomenon and no one should consider themselves immune. However, there are factors which may increase risk of addiction to the internet:

  • lack of other interests or social isolation can make a person more vulnerable

  • pre-existing abuse or addiction can easily transfer to the internet: for example, online gambling, cybersex, or online shopping

  • social anxiety or nervousness can make online interactions a very attractive alternative to face to face interaction and thus much more compelling

  • low self esteem, poor body image, or untreated sexual dysfunction can add to the internet's appeal as a sexual outlet.

What help is available for someone addicted to the internet?

Ironically, one initial source of help is online! Entering terms such as online or computer addiction will yield many articles and resources. The Center for On-Line Addiction is one of the more comprehensive sites, with informational articles, self administered tests, lists of books, a newsletter and counseling services. They can be found at http://www.net addiction.com.

"Caught in the Net" by Dr. Kimberly Young was one of the first recovery books written on internet addiction, and includes discussion of rebuilding relationships that have been impacted by net addiction.

More personalized, individual assistance can be obtained by seeking the services of a psychologist. The problem of internet addiction is not so unique that you need to find an "internet addiction specialist." Most psychotherapists are trained to assess and treat compulsive behavior, along with the associated difficulties of living and the emotional distress.

Reaching out for guidance is a smart move, especially when you have noticed destructive patterns that you have been unable to end. Check the directory of psychologists at psyris.com, and make that call.

... by Debra Moore, Ph.D.

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