Internet Addiction: It’s Not Just in Your Head

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Internet Addiction: It’s Not Just in Your Head

Feel restless when you can’t check Facebook? Lack of Wi-Fi making you anxious? Embarrassed about the amount of time you spend on a laptop or mobile phone? You may be addicted to the Internet.

It starts out small: just a few minutes checking e-mail before sleeping at night. Checking your messages and Instagram first thing in the morning. Just browsing for a few moments between appointments, or just before a movie starts — because who wants to sit through those commercials they’re now showing, anyway?

But soon you find yourself online all the time, logging on “just to check a few things,” and then look up, bleary-eyed, only to realize hours have passed. You can’t be anywhere without looking at your phone at the steady stream of information on your RSS reader, e-mail, Facebook and Twitter. And being without online or mobile access makes you anxious and jittery, and you can’t even enjoy yourself until you’re re-connected.

Maybe that sounds normal, but the growing saturation of connectivity in our everyday existence — to the point of interrupting the enjoyment of real life — is an increasing concern among the psychiatric community in the U.S. You may have a valid medical reason you can’t step away from your computer, because as the American Psychiatric Association says, Internet addiction may be a real mental health disorder.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, or DSM-V, is in the process of being revised, with Internet addiction being included as a topic for further study. The topic still needs a closer look before it can be included as a full-fledged disorder, according to DSM-V authors, but its current inclusion is the first step to officially recognizing the condition as a legitimate condition.

Some experts don’t agree that the Internet itself is addictive, and maintain people who go online compulsively are using the Web to mask other problems in their lives. But Internet addiction’s inclusion as a topic in the bible of the psychiatric community indicates it is a legitimate concern for many, though its future diagnosis and treatment may prove tricky.

Symptoms of Internet Use Disorder, or IUD, as the American Psychiatric Association calls it, resemble other addictive behaviors, meaning some people may have a real problem with not being able to disconnect, or even with being properly diagnosed.

Psychological or Physical?

The APA, which compiles the DSM-V, writes a person with the disorder — just like a drug addict — is preoccupied with a substance. Only this time around, instead of drugs, it’s the Internet.

A typical addict of any kind suffers preoccupation with their “substance” in question, experience withdrawal symptoms if it’s taken away from them, and develop higher levels of tolerance which makes them need more as time goes on. Addicts also suffer the loss of other interests, unsuccessful attempts to quit and often use a substance or behavior to improve or escape their problems.

A person with IUD is characterized as being overly occupied with gaming or checking messages or social media, suffers withdrawal when the Internet goes offline, feels the need to spend more time online to get the same “high,” and neglects their work or family to stay on a computer or smartphone.

Research shows, too, that Internet addicts’ brains change — so the problem may be more than just a habit gone awry. Researchers have learned that people addicted to being online show changes in the brain cells that control attention and processing emotions — resembling many of the changes seen in heroin and cocaine addicts’ brains.

Other researchers found addicts may actually have a medical reason at play as well. The brain’s dopamine system allows humans to experience pleasure and reward, but people who are addicted to the Internet have fewer, or impaired, dopamine receptors, making it difficult to feel rewards without extra effort.

But the APA says mental disorders don’t always have a chemical reason, and putting too much emphasis on biological causes can mask psychological factors behind the addiction issues.

Addiction in a Mobile World

Many studies about Internet addiction date back to the early days of home computing, but don’t often take into account the growing prevalence of mobile devices, which people are using more to check in online. Issues of addiction have escalated with the rise of on-hand connections, available no matter where you are.

Mobile devices are always nearby, making them more tempting than a PC, which you can walk away from. They also create a habit that’s hard to control, because as well as being addicted to the Internet, some people are addicted to their smartphones.

A report in the journal Personal and Ubiquitous Computing last year said many people look at their phone’s menu screens, news, e-mail and apps throughout the day, and the more they check their phones, the more addicted they become. Apps that offer “informational rewards” only feed smartphone addiction, the report says, so looking at a Facebook status with real-time updates about location, for example, contributes to the cycle.

As users downloading millions of apps every year, they have plenty to do on their smartphones. Most owners don’t use their phones for making calls, but for the apps they include, and sometimes those apps — particularly the ones for gaming — become addictive.

Do You Think You Have a Problem?

Internet addiction is just being recognized in the DSM-V, but it’s been studied for years. Dr. Kimberly Young, who in 1996 presented the first paper on the issue at the APA’s annual conference, likens Internet addictions to other syndromes that involve impulse-control problems.

Young also developed an Internet Addiction Diagnostic Questionnaire, or IADQ, to diagnose the disorder. So if you meet five of the following symptoms, you may need professional help:

1. Do you feel preoccupied with the Internet — think about 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, therapist, 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 — i.e. feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety or depression?

If you suspect you have symptoms, treatment may be difficult, since the Internet is such a part of everyday life. Even if you’re not sitting in front of a laptop or PC, most people have a phone that they can use to go online, because even feature phones allow you to check your e-mail and send messages.

The key, then, may not lie in treating the addiction like a substance problem, but in treating it like a behavioral issue. Food addicts must learn how to manage their problems, since you must have food to survive, and Internet addiction may be cured in the same way.

Internet and food addictions may also have a symbiotic, destructive relationship. People with eating disorders, for example, often feel pressure from friends and families to work toward changing anorexic and bulimic behaviors. But online, they find a community that shares and celebrates their unhealthy pursuits.

True, you don’t need the Internet to stay alive, but since offices and businesses use online services in one form or another, it’s hard to avoid being surfing the Web. In addition, if an addict wants the convenience of a phone, he or she will have to learn to learn self-control and resist constantly checking in — not an easy task for someone who is truly addicted.

Is It Really the Internet You’re Craving?

Dr. Michael Fenichel, a New York-based clinical and school psychologist who has closely studied and lectured on addictive behaviors, says the Internet and social media are not inherently addictive, but offer “great temptations.”

And many psychologists say people who believe they’re addicted to the Internet are actually addicted to behaviors that just happen to be online. For example, computers and mobile devices make it easier now to gamble, look up pornography or do other sorts of behavior that used to take a lot more effort.

Online gambling isn’t yet legal in the U.S., but several states are considering legislation, and American citizens can still log on to overseas gaming sites and place bets. Sex addicts, meanwhile, can find instant gratification for their addictions through online pornography, random Craigslist hookups and even cyber-sex chat rooms.

Other experts say Internet use actually masks different problems, helping people cope, but that doesn’t really mean they’re addicted to the Internet itself.

Dr. John M. Grohol, who has researched the issue extensively, believes many people who think they are addicted may actually have suffer from mental disorders such as depression, a serious health problem, or issues in their romantic relationships. In other words, Internet usage masks an underlying problem, which is actually the key to treatment.

“It is no different than turning on the TV so you won’t have to talk to your spouse, or going “out with the boys” for a few drinks so you don’t have to spend time at home,” Grohol wrote. “What some very few people who spend time online without any other problems present may suffer from is compulsive over-use. Compulsive behaviors, however, are already covered by existing diagnostic categories and treatment would be similar… and behaviors are easily treatable by traditional cognitive-behavior techniques in psychotherapy.”

Getting Help

Several psychologists are already working with online addictions — even before the APA’s official report recognizing Internet addiction as a problem.

However, once the syndrome is officially recognized — and inclusion for further study in the DSM-V is a major step in the process — that will likely open the door for insurance companies to help pay for medical treatment. If it’s proven that chemical reactions in a person’s brain make them become addicted to the Internet, there may be medication in the future that can help people better manage their online lives.

Until that time, Internet addiction will likely be treated like other addictions, including careful self-evaluation and following it up by consulting a professional — and realizing that as technology advances, it will continue to pose challenges for both users and the medical community.

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