by Dr. Lorin Bradbury
Question: Is being on the computer all day long a disorder? If yes, how can someone get help?
Over thirty years ago (1977), Marie Winn wrote an influential book entitled The Plug-in Drug. In it she compared the experience of watching television to chemical dependency. She noted that television withdrawal symptoms parallel drug withdrawal symptoms, and the need to watch, coupled with a lack of concern over what is being watched, is similar to a chemically dependent person’s cravings and lack of discretion over the kind of behavior that results from drug use.
Thirty-eight years later, we are confronted with a new piece of hardware that has potential to be even more addicting. Little in written in the professional psychological literature about the computer itself, but much concern has been raised over Internet addiction.
Internet addiction is not yet recognized as a formal mental health disorder. However, mental health professionals who have written about the subject note symptoms or behaviors that, when present in sufficient numbers, may indicate problematic use. Symptoms of a possible Internet addiction include the following:
• Preoccupation with the Internet: The individual often thinks about the Internet while at work or in other settings where access is not available, or not allowed.
• Loss of control: The individual feels unable to get up from the computer and walk away. He or she sits down to check e-mail or look up a bit of information, and ends up staying online for hours.
• Irritability or moodiness when not online: Dependency on any substance often causes mood-altering side effects when the addicted user is separated from the substance on which he or she depends.
• Mood-altering drug: One common symptom of many Internet addicts is the compulsion to cheer one’s self up by surfing the Web.
• Dishonesty in regard to Internet use: Addicts may end up lying to employers or family members about the amount of time they spend online, or find other ways to conceal the depth of their involvement with the Internet.
• Loss of boundaries or inhibitions: While this often pertains to romantic or sexual boundaries, such as sharing sexual fantasies online or participating in cyber sex, inhibitions can also be social.
• Damage to, or loss of, a significant relationship due to Internet use: Personal relationships are frequently neglected when users spend too much time on the Web. Just as alcoholics seemingly crawl into the bottle, Internet addicts crawl into the computer.
• Logging onto the Net while already busy at work: Individuals find themselves working overtime to make up for lost hours of work.
• Going without sleep: Whether it be viewing pornography or playing games around the world, addicted individuals may experience difficulties on the job due to impaired concentration and productivity related to sleep deprivation.
• Sneaking online: This may occur when spouse or family members are not at home, and the individual experiences a sense of relief.
• Unsuccessful efforts to quit or limit computer use: Individuals make repeated resolutions to limit computer use, or quit visiting certain web sites. However, they seemingly forget their commitments.
As you can imagine, the above list is not an exhaustive list of symptoms of an Internet addiction. If you are addicted, you probably could add several symptoms while reading this article.
As with any addiction, it’s one thing to identify symptoms that may be problematic, but is there help and how can it be obtained? Yes, there is help, but it’s up to you to obtain it. If you recognize that you might have a problem with Internet usage, you’re one step closer to a healthier life. It’s very easy to rationalize or deny Internet addiction. The following are some steps to get your Internet use under control.
• Identify underlying mental health needs: If you are struggling with depression or anxiety, for example, Internet addiction may be a form of self-medication for a mood disorder. Have you had problems with alcohol or drugs in the past? Does anything about your Internet use remind you of how you used to drink or use drugs to reduce anxiety or pain? Take a hard look at your needs. You may need therapy for the depression or anxiety, and 12-step meetings for the addiction(s).
• Increase your coping skills: Perhaps the Internet is your way of coping with stress or angry feelings. Or maybe you are excessively shy and feel like you cannot meet people in real life. Therapy may help build skills in these areas.
• Develop a support network:The more relationships you have in real life, the less you will need the Internet for social interaction. Set aside dedicated time each week for spouse and/or family. If you are shy, look for groups that pique your interest. It may be necessary to find several individuals to whom you can provide accountability. Be sure your support network includes individuals who will ask you hard questions.
• Keep a log: Keep a log of how much you use the Internet for non-work related activities. Try to get a clear picture of your Internet use. Are there times of day that you use it more? Are there triggers in your day that lead to you staying online for hours at a time when you planned to spend only a few minutes?
• Limit Use: Limit your Internet use. You might try setting a timer for usage, scheduling use for certain times of day, or making a commitment to turn off the computer at the same time each night.
• Replace your Internet usage with healthy activities: If you are bored and lonely, resist the urge to get back online. Have a plan for other ways to fill the time.
Don’t give up or give in. Get help. Therapy can help you learn healthier ways of coping with uncomfortable emotions, such as depression or anxiety. If your Internet use is affecting your spouse directly, such as with pornography, cybersex, or online affairs, marriage counseling can help you work through these challenging issues. Marriage counseling can help you reconnect with your spouse if you have been using the Internet for most of your social needs.
Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to [email protected]