Lost in the Internet

Although the internet can be a highly beneficial tool in developing an individual's mind, there is such a thing as too much internet. In todays technology-driven world a large proportion of children and teenagers spend six hours or more per day on the internet, either browsing blogs or socialising with friends via a social network sites. They may spend more than they can afford  and have their lives completely dominated by being online. For many individuals the usage levels of the internet increases with age and due to growth in unemployment many adults find themselves online from dawn to dusk. Is this a sign of internet addiction?

What is internet addiction?

Addiction is defined as a being abnormally dependent on a habit or substance. Internet addiction falls into the realm of true addiction when the individual is unable to function normally, abandoning social situations and familial responsibilities. A clinical diagnosis of addiction is made when the habits has affected all areas the individual's social, occupational, psychological and life. It needs to have occurred over a period of three months and needs to be a persistent feature of their existence.

Internet addiction manifest a unique symptom where one feels more comfortable in front of a computer with their virtual relationships than in a real world with real relationships. They may have an inability to stop playing online games, or shop or browse all day long, irrespective of the consequences on their relationships and job.

The different types of internet addition

Internet addiction is a term the covers a broad range of online addictions including the following impulse-control difficulties:

1. Cyber-relationship addiction

Cyber-relationship addiction is a dysfunction whereby the individual shows addictive behaviours related to social networking sites, chat rooms and IM services. They have difficulty socialising within normal face-to-face relationships and crave relationships within the virtual world. They also perceive these virtual friendships as more meaningful and significant than real-life relationships.

2. Cybersex addiction

This type of addiction is very similar to sexual fetishes and pornographic addictions; however it is restricted to the use of online pornographic content to produce a psychosexual release. These individuals are compulsive users of internet pornography sites, adult chat rooms and mature fetish websites whereby they will engage in different sexual fantasies with virtual playmates. Furthermore, the addiction will have a negative impact on their real-life sexual functioning and intimate relationships.

3. Internet compulsions

The 'net compulsions include an uncontrollable desire to engage in compulsive online gaming, stock trading, gambling and online shopping, often resulting in financial difficulties and occupational dysfunction.

4. Information overload

This type of addiction refers to the individual who spends copious amounts of time browsing the internet and searching databases for irrelevant pieces of information. Often this can lead to decreased functioning to the point where the individual will neglect his/her own personal hygiene.

The causes of internet addiction

There are various reasons why an individual would begin utilising the internet for many hours every day. The majority of internet addicts choose to enter the virtual world as a means of escape from reality due to depression, stress and feelings of intense anxiety. Similar to amphetamines or sedatives, online gaming or browsing blogs can have a very calming effect after a bad day at the office.

Furthermore, interacting with virtual friends is much easier than real-life friends as there is less stress to act appropriately or make yourself presentable. It is far less stressful chatting to a friend in New York about an image of a funny cat while sitting in your pyjamas than meeting up with friends at a bar in town.

The risk factors for internet addiction

Now that we have noted the causes we can examine the risk factors for internet addiction. Risk factors refer to the existing factors, which may lead to and/or further exacerbate an internet addiction. You are more likely to suffer from an internet addiction if you:

1. Suffer from anxiety. Individuals who show symptoms of anxiety disorders are more likely to turn to the internet as a means of escaping from anxious mental states.

2. Suffer from depression. As with anxiety these individuals are likely to turn to the internet as a means of escaping from the feelings of depression. Paradoxically, while virtual friends can assist in easing the feeling of depression, the absence of these friends can cause greater feelings of isolation and loneliness.

3. Other types of addictions. It has been noted that individuals with other forms of addictions may display an 'addictive personality' thus are more likely to become addicted to the internet.

4. You have no social support. Social networking sites and IM services are primary sources for internet addiction. If one does not have any social support it will be more likely that they will cling to these virtual friends as they are the only support available.

5. You are immobile. Many individuals who have physical disabilities and are unable to interact with real-life individuals turn to the internet as a means of socialisation and livelihood (online shopping, etc.). This may turn into an internet addiction as you find the internet your only outlet to the outside world.

Symptoms of internet addiction

In addition to the withdrawal from one's family and friends and compulsive use of the computer, one will also present with different physical symptoms indicating internet addiction. These are:

- Dry eyes
- Back and neck aches
- Severe headaches
- Sleep disturbances, specifically insomnia
- Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (a pain and numbness in the hands and wrists)
- Noticeable alteration in weight

Treatment for internet addiction

Addictions are rarely treated with medication and internet addiction is one type which cannot be treated without a degree of willingness from the patient. When you have identified the problem and is prepared to alter your behaviours it is rather simple to treat the addiction. It is simple but of course not always easy.

Firstly, you must identify the underlying difficulties such as anxiety and depression and seek counselling for those problems. Next you need to strengthen your social support network and participate in these real-life relationships.

Final words

As can be seen internet addiction is a very real and serious problem facing us today. However, with the right treatment and understanding of the disorder one can learn to use the internet in a healthy manner. 

Are you a Cyberjunkie?

Cyber Junkie: Escape the Gaming and Internet Trap
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