Many experts are reluctant to use the term "addiction" in regards to an unhealthy dependence on the Internet. Although Internet addiction is not (yet) a formally recognized psychological disorder, psychologists agree that many people use the Internet excessively, often to the detriment of home, family, friends, work or school.
People who have an unhealthy dependence on the Internet often spend time on-line to avoid day to day pressures, and the on-line social world takes the place of healthy human relationships. Like an addiction to pornography or gambling, this behavior is often referred to as a "non-chemical addiction," or an "impulse control disorder." Like other addictions, Internet dependence can result in unpleasant consequences, including increasing time-use on the Internet, withdrawal symptoms and the possibility of relapse.
Although the indications of Internet addiction vary from person to person, the problem shares many common symptoms and characteristics. If you think you or a loved one may have an on-line addiction, consider the following:
- Time spent online takes precedence over time with friends and family. Healthy relationships are threatened and a person with a dependence on the Internet becomes socially isolated.
- Online activities may include pornography, chat rooms, stock trading, gaming or gambling, but also typically “healthy” activities such as programming, shopping or web surfing.
- It is common for computer-addicted people to lie to family, employers or teachers about the time they spend on line, and about their online activities. When confronted, they often deny the existence of a problem.
- A person with an unhealthy dependence on the Internet may experience depression and anxiety when computer (or smartphone) time is denied or curtailed.
- People who are addicted, tend to think about the Internet constantly, even when they are away from the computer. Attempts to limit time spent on line are unsuccessful.
- An addicted person may turn to the computer for escape during difficult or stressful times. They may use the Internet to ease depression or anxiety.
- Tolerance is common as addiction progresses, and an Internet addiction is no different. A person with an addiction requires more and more on line time to attain the same “high.”
- Physical problems are a consequence of excessive computer use. For example, Internet addicts may develop carpal tunnel syndrome, vision strain, stiff neck, back pain and headaches. Insomnia is a common result of disrupted schedules and long on line hours, often followed by anxiety, even depression. Cyber-bullying and subsequent suicides due to excess-internet use are increasingly reported. Victims often lack friends in real life and thus the necessary reality checks of love, connection and worthiness.
Resolving an Internet addiction is difficult because unlike alcohol or drugs, use of the Internet is often required for work or school. For most people, pulling the plug is not an option. However, it’s possible to learn coping skills and reduce computer usage to a healthier level. Counseling, including cognitive behavior therapy, is often beneficial as are social-competency training and education about the benefits and dangers of the virtual world.