Internet Addiction: A Quiet But Common Form of Compulsive Disorder

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Internet addiction has many names: compulsive Internet use (CIU), problematic computer use or Internet addiction disorder. The DSM-5 calls this disorder “Gaming Disorder” when describing this particular set of symptoms. It is generally described as an “impulse use disorder,” that is very similar to gambling disorder. Just like substance abuse disorder, it can affect home life, relationships, work, academics and impair other areas of life. Despite no substance being ingested, Internet addicts can have withdrawal symptoms that include anxiety, fear, depression, anger, mood swings, sadness, loneliness, and procrastination. Physical symptoms can include backaches, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, dry eyes, personal hygiene issues, disordered eating, and disordered sleep patterns.

How Does Someone Become Addicted to Using the Internet?

Some reports suggest, “clients are most likely to present with direct complaints of compulsive Internet use, relationship difficulties, or a prior addiction problem and are less likely to present with a psychiatric illness. Respondents noted that 80% of their clients used email, 70% chat rooms, 10% newsgroups, 30% interactive online games, and 65% used the World-Wide-Web (primarily to view pornography or to utilize online trading or auction house services). Respondents reported an average caseload of nine clients who they classified as Internet addicted, with a range of two to fifty clients treated within the past year. It should be noted that 95% of the respondents reported that the problem was more widespread than these numbers indicate. “

What is the Difference Between an Internet Addict and an Everyday User?

In a time when everyone is on their phones, almost everyone works on a computer, and we stream shows of the Internet, how do we tell the difference between an everyday Internet user and someone with an Internet addiction? There are some subtle but clear signs you or your loved one may be addicted to using the Internet:

  • Constantly thinking about the Internet.
  • Increased and unreasonable use of the Internet.
  • Trying and failing to use the Internet.
  • Feeling anger, depression or irritability when unable to use the Internet.
  • Risking relationships, school and work due to Internet use.
  • Lies to loved ones and therapists about Internet use.
  • Uses the Internet as “self medication” for feelings of inadequacy, low self esteem, anxiety, guilt or depression.

What makes this diagnosis so difficult is technology’s pervasive presence in our lives. More and more, technology and the Internet is being used to make our lives easier both on the job and at home. There is no escaping it. For some Internet addicts, the risk of forming a second, secret life on the internet is a very real. Through interacting with other people online, addicts can form complex emotional attachments that can directly interfere with their everyday lives. It can manifest in prioritizing relationships with chatroom friends or falling in love with someone online. More and more therapists are reporting caseloads that include an increasing number of Internet and gaming addiction cases. “Such cyber-related issues not only appear to be a growing social concern, but anecdotal evidence has suggested that mental health practitioners ranging from college counselors, marital therapists, to drug and alcohol counselors report increased caseloads of clients whose primary complaint involves the Internet.”

Internet Addiction Isn’t Just About Gaming and Watching Pornography

What’s possibly the most common issue, especially with adolescents and teens, is cell phone addiction. CNN reported that a study found, “Fifty percent of teens feel they are addicted to their mobile devices, according to the poll, which was conducted for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit focused on helping children, parents, teachers and policymakers negotiate media and technology. A larger number of parents, 59%, said their teens were addicted. The poll involved 1,240 interviews with parents and their children, ages 12 to 18.” Addiction may seem like a strong word to use when it comes to constantly checking your phone, but when you can’t put your phone away for even an hour, you may have a problem. Especially for teens, what happens when they leave school to go into a workplace setting? Those behaviours would be considered unacceptable. So it’s extremely important to start healthy habits early!

Healthy Habits Everyone Should Learn When it Comes to Using the Internet

It’s important to understand what healthy Internet and technology use looks like. For kids, healthy Internet habits should be started young! The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests that:

  • “For children younger than 18 months, avoid the use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
  • For children ages, 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
  • For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.
  • Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
  • Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.”

As a parent, especially to adolescents, it’s extremely important to create and follow through on the Internet and digital tech limits. It’s the only way to teach them self control as well as how much fun it can be NOT being plugged in to the Internet all the time. For some, this means more work and more quality time spent with your kids. As a parent, take a good, long look at your own Internet and screen time habits to make sure you’re being a good example. It’s hard to get kids to buy in to household rules when parents are breaking them too. For adults, it’s really about moderation and being a good example for children. When sitting at a table with your friends for dinner, it’s impolite to be constantly looking at your phone. It’s important to spend quality time with loved ones. Whatever is waiting for you on your phone will still be there after you’re done spending time with others.

When to Get Help and How to Treat Someone With Internet Use Disorder

Based on the DSM-IV Pathological Gambling model, these questions were developed to assess someone who has addictive Internet use disorder. If you believe you or a loved one is addicted to the Internet, ask the following questions:

  1. Do you feel preoccupied with the Internet (think about a previous online activity or anticipate next online session)?
  2. Do you feel the need to use the Internet with increasing amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction?
  3. Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop Internet use?
  4. Do you feel restless, moody, depressed, or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop Internet use?
  5. Do you stay online longer than originally intended?
  6. Have you jeopardized or risked the loss of significant relationship, job, educational or career opportunity because of the Internet?
  7. Have you lied to family members, therapists, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the Internet?
  8. Do you use the Internet as a way of escaping from problems or of relieving a dysphoric mood (e.g., feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, depression)?

If you answered “yes” to five or more of these questions, it’s time to seek help with a rehab center that is skilled at dealing with Internet addiction. This test is not a diagnostic tool, but an indicator that help is needed by a medical professional.